Creating a digital personality: How a kiwi creative agency won big with Huff Post

Gladeye has won big for its collaboration with Huff Post Highline to deliver FML; an interactive new age form of digital story-telling. The Kiwi digital agency has pipped finalists New York Times, National Geographic and ESPN to accept awards for Web Feature Design, Web Animation, and Innovative Practice at the 53rd Annual American Society of Publication Designers Awards gala in New York. It’s one of the many polarising stories Gladeye has collaborated on including America’s Most Admired Lawbreaker, Out Here, No One Can Hear You Scream and Four Quitters Walk Into a Bar, to name a few. We sit down with founder and creative director Tarver Graham, to hear about how Gladeye is transforming news stories from across the globe.

FML presents the new era of storytelling, an interactive and elaborate series of animation and illustration, which combines digital design and technology with storytelling. The embellished article on the Huff Post long-form platform Highline is written by journalist Michael Hobbes and was among the most read stories of last year for Huff Post. The storyline exposes a flawed modern day economic model where millennials are being shafted, with a claim that ‘millennials are facing the scariest financial future of any generation since the Great Depression’.

Instead of having a regular body of text conjoined with a few banal images as commonly seen in news stories, the article presents a dystopic expose of expressive colours and typography. Additionally, readers follow the journey of the fictitious character, Becky, who embodies the narrative of a struggling millennial. The character is seen trekking through life as a millennial falling subject to a series of pitfalls. Becky’s highlights include running to her first home before falling down a hole of financial insecurity and is later seen pushing an avocado up a ramp. 

“We came up with The Game Of Life concept with Highlines digital creative director Sandra Garcia. She then collaborated with our designer Pablo Espinosa who created the concepts and animation of the character as well as figure out how it would be threaded through the story.”

“We talked about her (Becky) as if she had a personality, which evolved as the story developed.”

Graham discusses the creative process and the fine line of being conceptual while adhering to a news story. He shares the importance of balancing creativity, while remaining relevant to the storyline, and not diverting its audience.

He shares times where the editorial team would rein in creative concepts, including one where the reader was able to play the character and another involving a Facebook messenger bot, which would interact with readers while viewing the story. In the end, Graham conceded that too many features would pull the audience away from the story. He says the balance of creative output is an issue that all creative agencies face.

“Each brand has a core story or a core service, and there are many examples where creative agencies tell a story that is only very loosely connected to that brand. It may be an interesting story and have great characters but it may not align with the brand service or journalistic story as in this case.”  

While FML saw particular success, it’s not the first time Gladeye has unleashed its digital armoury on Huff Post Highline, in 2015 it drilled a 15-piece expose called ‘The Miracle Industry’ which was described by Huff Post as the most ambitious journalistic endeavour it has undertaken.

Three years on, Graham shares how the relationship between a small town New Zealand agency and a big-time international publisher came to be.

“Like any collaboration, it started with a relationship, one of the executive editors at Huff Post is a New Zealander, so we got in touch and now we are very much a trusted partner, not only with Highline but with Huff Post proper.”

Furthermore, while Gladeye continues to grow and collaborate with further international brands, Graham believes at the moment he feels that the core engine room should remain in New Zealand.

“Every time I have gone to New York and showed off our work and what we do, I have noticed you couldn’t create a team like we have over there. In New Zealand, we don’t have the same scale of venture capital and as an agency, we can keep our core group of strong developers together.”

He shares its first experience of going to New York, but instead of feeling the need to typically claw its way up, Graham tells the New Zealand story, and it’s a good one.

“New Zealand is a place which attracts world-class creative talent who come here, we had a French designer who went surfing first thing in the morning and came to work at 10 and that was part of his creative process.”

Asked how web animation and design will coincide with news organisations in the future, Graham believes there is still much to explore.  

“We are still making pieces that are frozen in time, which don’t have a contextual understanding of the internet. The two things I would really like to explore in digital storytelling is changing stories over time and enabling readers to have an impact on the story.”

Graham muses over how storytelling could evolve with digitisation and shares his thoughts of evolving stories over time as well as connecting readers who are politically charged over a certain issue to interact with stories to connecting readers further. He cites new channels VR and AR as enablers of these ideas.

“There are certainly interesting movements in this space, it is all fairly conceptual at the moment but we are starting to see testing done overseas as to how we can tell stories through VR.”

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