Inside: TVNZ Blacksand

Around the world, broadcasters are using their talents to make more than just promos for their own shows or idents for their own channels. And TVNZ’s Blacksand is no exception. So should agencies be concerned by the multi-skilled employees, the quick turnaround, the increasing interaction with clients and the improving output of this inhouse creative department? Or can everyone get along? 

You could argue that agencies—both creative and media—are basically middle-men and the rise of disintermediation and branded content means media owners are increasingly cutting them out and working directly with clients. And, as Cannes chairman Terry Savage said when he visited last year, this has led to an increasing number of media companies winning creative awards, such as Channel 4’s amazing ‘Meet the Superhumans‘, which was done entirely inhouse

Historically, the work of inhouse agencies was generally ‘good enough’, rather than spectacular. As the old advertising axiom goes: ‘cheap, fast and good: choose two’. But cheap and fast doesn’t have to mean bad, according to Blacksand general manager Sarah Finnie and executive creative director Jens Hertzum, and, like its overseas brethren, it has been doing a lot more bigger, more complex campaigns of late, most notably the Shortland St interactive clue hunt

“I don’t think I’ve ever said it’s good enough,” says Hertzum. “It’s more like ‘let’s make it better within the time limits we’ve got’. Deadlines are fast and furious, so there’s very little time for pontificating. We’re very solutions focused. We jump on something, find out what it demands, go back to the client, shoot it and keep moving. We don’t have a huge gestation process so we get things done quickly and efficiently.”

Finnie, who “has worked in just about every aspect of television and production here and overseas … for some of the best-known channels in the world”, returned to New Zealand after a stint in the UK and set-up Blacksand around three years ago. Prior to her arrival there were creative teams in pockets throughout TVNZ, so she basically took the existing talent and functions and brought them all together (it now houses around 100 staff, with 14 in the design department, and it recently moved into its temporary office in the Telecom building). 

Finnie says Blacksand’s split between external and internal work is currently about 75/25. And while it has grown its revenue and staff in areas like commercial production/production partnerships, she doesn’t think creative agencies should be worried.

“I think the important thing is we’re not an agency. They shouldn’t be scared because there is a very real and proper place for both. Globally, broadcasters are leveraging their capability and their technology to a much wider client base. And it’s had some really interesting results. In fact, we work really collaboratively with a lot of agencies. We have the expertise in television and that knowledge of consumers, and agencies have the expertise in broader strategic global brand ownership, so it’s a really good partnership.”

Finnie says there are some external clients who walk though the door and say ‘I’ve got a problem and I want to utilise TVNZ’s greater offering in terms of media and mass reach and digital’. So it is does work with strategic briefs, but it’s often with the creative agency as well in order to take that idea all the way through production.

“That’s when you see those great things like Telecom’s Tech in a Sec and Mitre 10’s Easy As, because we utilise TVNZ’s core infrastructure … We do make ads, absolutely. But not many, because we tend to be working in conjunction with our own content and then leveraging that, or with media in terms of the branded content. Where we are absolutely experts is that format-driven branded content.”

But one thing Blacksand has done is removed the need for TVNZ to have a full-time creative agency on the roster. Finnie says it still works with specialists and agencies from time to time (in the UK, BBC Red often works with Fallon) if it’s in the best interests of TVNZ, but it now has the ability to create most of its above-the-line campaigns inhouse, which is why Hertzum says it’s now called the creative department, not the promos department.

“We have always looked after the brand and the aspects of promo-making but combined with the design team we’ve grown that creative to a point where they actually start being able to do the branding and tentpole campaign work. It’s expanded. It’s happened overseas, it’s happening in Australia with Red SMP at Seven. And it’s happening here.”

So if it’s removed the need for a creative agency of its own, is it only a matter of time before clients decide they don’t need an agency either? Finnie doesn’t think so.

“As a broadcaster, our requirement is very specific in terms of function,” says Finnie. “High volume of production, very quick turnaround and tough deadlines. TV brands, or content brands, are multiplatform in every sense of the world now. They are living, breathing brands and they’re engaging with consumers 24 hours a day, whereas most of our clients don’t have that requirement.”

At a time when clients seem to be demanding more content—and often demanding it for less expense and in less time—the planets seem to be moving into alignment for a model like Blacksand’s, especially considering there’s still a high degree of specialisation at agencies and plenty of ticket clipping involved in the process of making ads. And the skills of its staff reflect those demands. 

“It’s absolutely jack of all trades in terms of our creative team,” says Finnie. “They go from ideation, copywriting, editing—all of them can self-edit now on desktops—all the way through to delivery. A good proportion of them can also direct. But we also have specialist areas as well, like a post production suite and a specialist colourist; roles you’d find at a production agency.”

Some of it can undoubtedly be put down good planning. But some of it is also good luck and Hertzum says this kind of approach is simply “all we’ve ever known in this industry”.

“My first job was at a network and I started off as a junior promo maker, where you wrote copy. You used to have an editor. There was a shift in the ‘90s when you became a ‘preditor’, or a promo-making editor. I think the Americans came up with that. So the promo makers then became more than just the writers and the music selectors. They were looking to sell the essence of a show in 30 seconds. From that point on you became an editor and quite technically savvy due to changing financial models and technology. Furthermore, you started to direct a few things. Maybe you didn’t have the footage for some boxing match, so you’d say ‘let’s go shoot the boxer training’ and get him to say ‘watch me live’. Gradually, that’s how you increase your skillset.”

Finnie couldn’t discuss Blacksand’s revenue figures but she says its success isn’t measured on profit. It’s “embedded into the success of TVNZ”, which, despite dealing with a few major PR issues recently, recorded some positive numbers in its latest financials

“That’s not a politician’s answer. We create value for the company. If a partner comes in and says ‘we want to spend this much on media’, we might chuck in production.”

If anything, Blacksand’s success is probably measured more on savings, as the work it does helps reduce fees paid to agencies (for example, the recent rejig of TVNZ’s corporate brand was done inhouse). 

​It no doubt saved a fair whack of cash by producing all of the work for the Shortland St summer campaign inhouse, and this type of transmedia approach to promotion of shows seems set to become more common because the “obsessed, passionate fans” want the stories and characters to live on well beyond their time-slot.

“We wanted to give the fans their daily dose throughout the summer hiatus,” says Finnie. “It was an extreme thrill to see your audience reacting like that. They lapped it up … It probably wasn’t our biggest campaign in terms of budget or scale but it was our first end-to-end inhouse Blacksand production campaign that included such a significant multi-platform and digital element. We concepted it, wrote it and produced it. I think we are experts in video production and I don’t think anyone would challenge that. But we’re moving that expertise to be truly multi-platform and be able to move across TVNZ’s own ecosystem as well as third party digital media. And that’s something we will really be focusing on in the next year/18 months.”

They learned plenty along the way, of course, and there was a bit of a whoopsie at the start of the campaign when someone purchased the domain name that it pointed to and tried to sell it back to TVNZ. But overall, taking the show into this realm worked very well, they say. 

“I think the bar [for transmedia]was set with Lost and also the launch campaign for the Dark Night,” says Hertzum. “A year out from launch, you could apply for a job with the Joker, you could have a look at the transport system map of Gotham, you could read The Gotham Times. I’m a comic book fan so this appealed to me. I’m a geek at heart.”

Hertzum also points to a very popular app created for the show Sherlock in the UK that was intended to keep fans engaged while it was off air (punters had to pay for it, so ideas like this can even become new revenue streams for broadcasters). And another local example of this is the work it did to create extra online content for TV2’s Step Dave, which it creates in partnership with South Pacific Pictures (the show’s writers provide scripts and Blacksand shoots them on the set).

“That has happened hand in hand with the show being launched. After each episode there’s something online to look at as well. So it’s added value; it’s extra video that complements the show or offers a new look at those characters.”  

The local version of My Kitchen Rules will be the next big one to get the transmedia treatment, they say.

While it’s tempting to focus on the new, like big campaigns, the production partnerships and the client work, its major role is still supporting TVNZ by making promos, looking after the organisation and administration of promos on air, post production—both on shows produced within TVNZ as well as on shows made for TVNZ by the production sector (it pitches for that work)—and making title sequences and end graphics. 

And while Blacksand’s role is changing, Hertzum says so is the understanding of—and investment in—TV channels as brands.

“To a certain degree there is a bit of catch-up being played,” he says. “As the landscape becomes more fragmented and complex, brands have to mean more to people and stand out more and it’s a global trend that’s been occurring over the past 15 years or so. Lambie Nairn’s revitailsiation of the BBC brand in the 1990s, and my old boss Bruce Dunlop’s reworking of Sky in the UK had a massive impact. I don’t think the TV brands were taken that seriously. They were just a digital flag and a little sting and an animation saying ‘here, we’re this’. Now the brand has to get noticed more and people have to connect more. That’s not just for TV brands, it’s every brand across the board. But yes, I think there has been a bit more of a focus on making a brand work better for the content as a place to go, a destination point.”

And that’s helping TV stay vibrant, with the recently announced ASA stats showing it’s still the most popular medium for advertising in New Zealand and ITV just announcing record-breaking profits.

“Linear TV is not dying. It’s just not happening. It’s all about the sense of community,” says Hertzum. “Glut TV and people bingeing on a show like Game of Thrones has got a place. But it’s not going to be as big or as game-changing as first thought.”

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