HOW'S BUSINESS: Brand Definition is handling the coronavirus Depression
The digital agency Brand Definition was just moving offices when the coronavirus clampdown hit in March. The Northwest Portland company, known for its campaigns for LG monitors, Enterprise Ireland, JVC USA, and Hitachi, had seen out its lease in the old Albers Mill and moved to spacious new digs in Field Office, the brand new, two-part office building at 2035, N.W. Front Ave, just north of the Fremont Bridge.
Unlike a lot of companies in the media space however, Brand Definition didn't furlough its staff of 15. It kept them on, working from home, producing scripts, videos and animation for social media campaigns.
Field Office is a ghost town right now, but CEO Daniel O'Connell was in the new office on a recent morning assembling the racks that will hold the cameras and lights in their new studio, which will be double the size of the old one. There are ottomans to make up a seating area for a small audience, as though the old normal life will one day return.
Since the technology is so affordable, in their old space the company created content, putting out 51 video podcasts called Output PDX, where they talked to tech and creative workers in Portland. That show will be revived in the new space, said O'Connell.
He unboxes one of the new Spark Plus IO 4K PTZ cameras they got in a deal with a client they represent, NewTek. Pan Tilt Zoom cameras allow a video director to create dramatic camera shots remotely, while sitting behind the glass at a control panel — in the next office or across the globe. The shots can be written as macros in the system controller, saving time and labor. The new gear is all about automating and improving workflow. They use a NewTek's Network Device Interface app which in theory truns any phone into a reliable source of video for presentations.
It's a fresh start. "The technology needed upgrading anyway, it was five years old," said O'Connell. "But you come into this space and you're not going to half-ass it, are you?"
Keeping the live studio going in Portland is important because he wants to keep tapping into local talent. "You can't do everything remote."
The content they are making now he calls "almost personalized streams" that talk about, for instance, electronics maker LG, for the hospitality market. The content is aimed at the person who might be buying thousands of TVs for a hotel chain and it should persuade them to buy LG. It'll never been seen by the public, but there's a lot at stake.
The new setup allows Brand Definitions staff to create sophisticated video almost on the fly.
"Before, you'd have to really plan it out and set up the gear. Now we can go in and just express it right there. And if you get it wrong, you can go back and do it again. It just makes it a reflex."
O'Connell has just had workers in installing that studio glass and cutting holes in the walls for the power and data cables. The cameras, switcher, editing suite and storage all use one connection, making for simple set up.
The space is configured so that the two small conference rooms can also be turned into studios in a plug-and-play manner. It's a good place to run a virtual press conference, with speakers dialed in from remote locations and backdrops on green screens. The goal is that the studio could be operated by one person in times of extreme social distancing, which may well happen in the future.
O'Connell is a believer in the long game. He'll keep in touch with a sales lead for years in the hope that one day they will do business together. He sees a virtue in being a small agency in a recession, since marketing is often the first thing to be cut from a company's budget, and the bigger, more expensive agencies are more vulnerable. His young staff come out of communications school already able to edit video. Currently three can do it from home using Final Cut and others are using Adobe After Effects and the Adobe Suite.
"If you position yourself as a super high-end consultancy or a super expensive service provider, then you are the first to get cut. I like to think of how Volkswagen manages their line."
The line starts with SEAT at the entry level, and goes up through Volkswagen, Audi, Porsche and Lamborghini.
"And we're like Audi, at Volkswagen prices. We're not the Porsche. But if you look at those cars, it's all the same chassis, it's all made the same way, with the same platforms."
Brand Definition is partially protected from the recession because it is business-to-business. Consumer brands are having a harder time now, since consumption has effectively been reduced to groceries and streaming media.
But he is hanging on to staff with a view to the future.
"I'm keeping my staff on because they're bloody hard to get. Going out and replacing these people would be a dead expensive proposition. You build something and you build it strong, with the expectation that this downturn could hit at any time."
It has hit all right, with a 4.8% contraction in GDP in the first quarter of 2020, and unemployment nationally at 14.7%.. 36 million jobs were lost by the mid May 2020.
"So, when it does hit, you're in a decent position," he said.
When it comes to other digital agencies, "The big ones are all bluster. You'll see their heads, they'll do the speaker tour, they'll go to Davos. But it's the middle tier and the lower tier of those big agencies that are disposable because the clients will migrate away. But the figureheads, there'll be fine."
O'Connell, who comes from Ireland, landed the contract to do public relations for Enterprise Ireland, a state agency that supports Irish business interests in Ireland and abroad. They worked with Vigor Industrial to build the wave energy convertor OE Buoy for the Irish company Ocean Energy. It now sits at the US Navy's Wave Energy Test Site on coast off O'ahu, generating electricity from the ocean's movement.
Right now, they are also making videos for companies who need to learn how to use social media, how to do an online presentation and how to use Salesforce, as traditional companies scramble to digitize their communications. They are making a 10-part series on how to do social media for Enterprise Ireland, using Irish and American experts.
Brand Definition applied for a Small Business Administration loan during the first tranche of awards, as part of the Federal government's Paycheck Protection Program, and was successful. O'Connell won't say how much they got, other than to say it was "five figures".
Reporter, The Business Tribune
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