You’re having a mega launch of a strategic product or service and the global media will be watching but first you need to energise your own staff. It has to be a glittering multimedia feast for the senses, that wins over hearts and minds. It has to sizzle but not explode. However, theatrical showpieces for business are a minefield of digital demons, all waiting to floor the perfect presentation. How do you deal with this?
Alastair Scott, managing director of Edinburgh-based 20/20 Productions, relishes this kind of Rubik-cube digital challenge. His company, celebrating 25 years in business this summer, has built an unsurpassed reputation for presenting high profile communications that excel.
“Every time a global company launches a new product or is involved with mass engagement of its people, there are live events where the chief executive and his team address both customers and staff. The potential for something to go wrong is enormous. Things cannot go wrong: that’s a pressure cauldron to live with,” he insists.
Scott was born in Scotland and moved to Yorkshire. He had aspirations of becoming an actor, but became a theatre technician instead, working in Harrogate’s theatres, including its listed Frank Matcham auditorium. He learned his trade from secondments with Yorkshire Television, variety shows and opera companies, and the likes of Tony Gill. [“I was extremely lucky when I learned my trade.”]
The theatre team undertook the live Euro-wide broadcast of the Eurovision Song Contest in 1982, with Bardo singing the forgettable UK’s entry. “In the 1980s, business theatre took a massive surge in popularity, so I went freelance. A lot of companies were launching their products with a theatrical flourish: it was the days of British Gas and the Tell Sid shareholders option. There were a lot of shareholder events that were hi-tech.”
Scott worked on many big ticket new launches across Europe and Africa. “There was a lot of work around for everyone in the 1980s and 1990s. Then we realised we could do in Scotland what the London agencies were doing in the rest of the UK. We also thought we could do it better. So we launched 20/20 Productions in 1990.”
Alastair and Andy MacKay, who met in Harrogate, founded the company. Looking back, the changes in the digital world have been like the leap from the chariot to the combustion engine. “We were focusing more on live events for business and video production. We have extended our services since then and with the digital age that has become a major part of our work.”
The company’s key areas are creative, digital, events and film, all helping to make a spectacular impression on internal communications for their clients. “During the 1990s, we built up the business organically, working for the big players including RBS, HBOS, Standard Life – the bigger financial institutions,” says Scott.
Word of mouth spread the firm’s ability to transform a simple internal communication event into an engaging theatre spectacle for corporate businesses. “Engagement is the key: if you are not engaging the audience and grabbing attention, you are missing a trick,” he says.
Meanwhile, in 2002, 20/20 Productions opened its office in San Francisco, in the SoMa area, with Andy moving over to the United States to head up this development. “We reached the point where we felt we had to develop the business and take it further afield.
As we were working all over the UK, it seemed impractical to open another office and duplicate everything, so we decided to set up in the United States.”
This proved to be a successful step for 20/20 Productions, with Andy moving permanently to the west coast of America. “This part of the company is doing very well and serves some of the big multi-nationals in the Bay area. Our biggest claim to fame is a contract working for the United Nations, celebrating their 60th birthday. The company did all the event production. That was a colossal occasion with 110 heads of government.”
A few of the Edinburgh office were drafted in to help with this high prestige work. “It is competitive in the United States but there are not many companies able to offer what we do.”
In 2009, the UK business moved to its present address at the Pleasance, with its stunning top floor view of Arthur’s Seat, and for the past three years have been looking further afield; turning their attention to Dubai where they are now delivering live events.
“Over the last couple of years we’ve been encouraged by local suppliers in the Gulf who knew we were offering a very different service than was available.”
In May, 20/20 Productions are opening an office in Dubai, but there is plenty of other activity for the Scottish firm back at base. “We’re just back from a live exhibition in Florence for one of the biggest oil companies in the world, we are producing a film for Heineken, and other internal comms pieces for Akzo-Nobel, the Dutch healthcare and chemicals company, and we’re working for Standard Life Investments.
I am allowed to tell you we are doing it but I can’t tell you much more about what it is,” he says. These projects encompass the four key areas of the business but Scott remarks: “We’ve witnessed a significant uptake in film production and animation as the first choice in visual communication.”
“For one of our projects, it all comes to life on an animated globe which is then reflected on a huge projection screen in an exhibition environment. This is hi-tech in a different way to get a message across. It is a mixture of different media styles, so it stands-out.”
For Scott, it is all about a blend of highly creative talent and technical know-how, and the experience of what works and what can go drastically wrong. And because it is for corporate players, there is no margin for error or technological breakdown.
“We employ experts in their field, gathered together to create something that is not attributable to one individual. It’s true cross-platforming, and that’s the way we have worked since the start. We’ve managed to get people from a diverse range of creative and technical backgrounds.”
On a typical project, such as their work for the Chartered Institute of Personnel Development, at Olympia in London in May, the company is building five temporary theatres in the cavernous empty space of the exhibition hall for their Learning and Development conference. Project management and painstaking, early planning are key to success.
“We’ve been working with CIPD for 20 years. Not only are we creating the content that runs live and applying the technical know-how to make things work, we’re building and designing the spaces and the layout for the event. It is not a normal production exercise: it is an architectural and logistical challenge, on which we thrive.”
All this has to fit in with the ‘brand guidelines’ of the client and deliver to upwards of 2,500 visitors. “We have to make the experience a memorable one. Our side is pushed the hardest because of the pressures of a live event.”
Scott says his project managers have a background mainly in events, and they have an understanding of all the aspects. “We’ve developed our own technique for project and financial management over that time. We are adept at finding local suppliers,” he says.
In Dubai, the fledgling business will be served from Scotland, while Edinburgh can shift work through the time-zones for the west coast of American clients. “The time differences work for us, especially on web and design projects, where we can be working during San Francisco’s night time and have it back to the client in the morning. This is easily transferred electronically,” he says.
20/20 Productions works ‘below the line’ and their work is rarely seen by the public, yet the same professional standards that viewers expect from high definition screens is now de rigueur for major corporate clients.
How does Scott ensure that things don’t go awry? “We test, test and test again. We have service-level agreements with our suppliers, getting things put in place from the outset. Actually, one of my senior producers says, ‘90% of the work is done before we get there.’ That’s true – a lot of what we do is in pre-planning.”
He says if things go wrong – and they sometimes do – this is before the critical stage, and can be fixed before the live event. “It is about anticipating problems before they happen.”
This kind of service is high value – and satisfied customers come back again, and again. “People try to do these events on the cheap and it can be nerve-wracking because your belt and braces aren’t there. That’s not to say that things can’t be done economically. The majority of what we do is internal communications and it is expected to be as good if not better than any external communications, so there is a high bar set. No longer do people gather in a canteen with a flip chart, that’s not good enough any more. People expect information to be delivered to them in a professional way and that’s key to what we do,” says Scott.
The firm employs a core of 13, but also uses a bank of freelancers who step in depending on the project. On the CIPD project at Olympia, there will be over 50 people working in London.
The San Francisco office also has four people which scales up for bigger projects. The 20/20 expertise extends to making commercial-style videos with its work for Old Mout, a New Zealand cider now made for Heineken, shortlisted for a national communications award.
After several tough years pulling themselves out of the recession, 20/20 Productions remain coy about turnover – which is around £500,000 – but Alastair Scott sees the new opportunities in an improving market and is confident that turnover will continue to increase significantly.
“Most businesses had a blip in their accounts in 2008 and 2009 – we were no different. The shock waves went on for a few years after that, but in recent years we have seen a growth in turnover and we want that to continue. It has been a long, slow recovery but I can sense an upturn in the UK’s and our fortunes.”
20/20 Productions are typical of so many creative Scottish SMEs who have fought through the dark days – now they want to push ahead with renewed vigour and commitment to their clients.