HOW TO FOSTER CREATIVE COMPANY CULTURE AND ENCOURAGE COLLABORATION
Ntropic Founder Nate Robinson on setting up his own agency, the business of VFX and his predictions for Adland 2018
Like many creatives from California, Nate Robinson, became inspired to create by skateboarding. After a chance meeting with some well known skate professionals, he was given the chance to create videos and graphics for their company which was also luckily for a young Nate, was also a major US skate brand.
After a few years of creating work for them and learning his craft, Nate founded Ntropic, a design studio with a difference, that aimed to offer a full range of creative production services.
Nate has now operated Ntropic for the last twenty one years. The longevity of the studio speaks volumes about how successful the studio has become. We sat down with him to chat about how he got his start in advertising, how he has grown his business and his thoughts on the future of VFX and production.
LITTLE BLACK BOOK: Would you briefly sum up Ntropic’s journey, starting with skate videos in a garage to becoming an award-winning content studio with three offices and a portfolio spanning the biggest global brands?
NATE ROBINSON: Growing up in the bay area I used to skate with my friends. I was fortunate to connect with Jeff Kendall and Rob Roskopp. They brought me in to collaborate with them on films at Santa Cruz Skateboards, a well known brand based in California. The experience working with them truly was the best filmmaking school I could have attended. We would shoot, edit, design logos/graphics, and work with different punk bands to provide the soundtrack. It was the perfect sandbox to start my career. It allowed me to look at filmmaking from a holistic approach and pave the way to open up Ntropic, a studio that operates as integrated whole rather than departments. This foundation enabled the team at Ntropic to easily pivot into music videos, feature films, TV, broadcast, commercials, experiential and most recently augmented and virtual reality. Reflecting back on the last 21 years after opening Ntropic, this approach to our process and pure love for what we do has allowed us to create content and tell stories that are genuine and authentic. It’s something our clients appreciate and why they value us as a partner.
LITTLE BLACK BOOK: Given the nature of ever-changing advertising landscape, how do you foster a company culture that not only sticks but also encourages collaboration and creativity?
NATE ROBINSON: It all starts with our values. They are what guide us and keep us connected. With that strength we are able to be agile and adapt to anything that is thrown our way. The team is always excited about problem solving and the opportunities we are given. We also are huge on respect and value what each person brings to the table. Our culture is egoless by nature, and we all like to be thoughtful about our interaction with one another. In addition, I believe what helps foster an appealing company culture is that we are an artist-led studio. We put the creative and work first and don't sacrifice quality to make an extra bit of profit. We pride ourselves in wanting to get it right. I work to ensure everyone here knows that I care about them and appreciate what they bring to the company, and that has a positive effect on our company culture.
LITTLE BLACK BOOK: How would you describe the current state of advertising? What are the modern ways that a studio like Ntropic partners with brands and agencies to meet the resulting challenges?
NATE ROBINSON: From what we’ve observed, everyone is trying to hold on to their clients and stay relevant. We are seeing consolidation and a continued desire to have a hybrid model that can offer more. Agency people are continuing to go in-house to brands and the need for content continues to grow. We are also seeing the need for content to be created faster than ever before, which presents a new set of challenges in a traditional model that has so many layers to it. Ntropic has found an interesting niche to partner with both agencies and brands. Clients now come to us very early on to get our thoughts on how to bring a project to life. Our expertise in so many fields is an invaluable resource to help solve problems. Along those same lines, we have created a platform with all our clients that is much more inclusive. We like to bring clients along on the journey and make them part of the process, rather than walking away for a few weeks and coming back with something they hopefully approve of.
LITTLE BLACK BOOK: Many companies in the production and VFX spaces are pivoting to a content agency model, moving upstream in the creative process to focus on strategy and rapid asset creation to be spliced for various screens and platforms -- what is your point of view on this trend? Is Ntropic pivoting in similar ways?
NATE ROBINSON: We pivoted a long time ago because that’s always been who we are. You have to offer more value in this industry now, and we’ve tried to do that from the start. No matter who we’re working with, the question is what value can we offer? We do this by getting involved as early as possible to offer our point of view and share any knowledge that could be beneficial in bringing a project to life. We listen to what everyone (brand, agency, marketing, product, etc.) needs and then come up with our creative thinking. Because of our 21 year heritage we have developed processes/pipelines that allow us to be proactive and work at an extremely fast pace to keep up with client demands. For us, we have really enjoyed this shift in working. It allows us to have a more inclusive interaction with our clients and get to a solution quicker.
LITTLE BLACK BOOK: In particular, how are you using VR and AR media to elevate your storytelling and brand collaborations?
NATE ROBINSON: Our team has been tracking VR and AR for quite some time now. I opened up a sister company called Tactic in 2014 with my business partner Peter Oberdorfer. It has become our experiential new media division. At first, most of VR was a passive experience, and then we started utilizing Unity and Unreal Engine to make the experiences more immersive and interactive. That’s when VR and AR moved into really exciting territory! For a while, a lot of clients weren’t willing to put the money into these technologies, but this year many began looking for a new way to tell stories. Tactic has now completed several AR apps for everything from wine bottles, to cars to climate change. One of our apps for 19 Crimes has created some powerful buzz. The viral video showing off the experience has been viewed 8.7 million times on Facebook. It’s using the engaging technology in an incredibly creative way. VR has also been great for us with purpose-based content. We recently worked on a piece for Water is Life, a clean water initiative helping kids learn about toxins in their river. Tactic created a full game engine experience where kids could learn about the pollutants in the water while defeating the monsters utilising the life straw. We also just finished a VR experience for the Nobel Peace Prize to help abolish nuclear arms. The piece was emotional and something we are proud to be a part of.
LITTLE BLACK BOOK: If you had to predict, what do you see unfolding in the advertising industry in 2018?
NATE ROBINSON: Brands are continuing to put pressure on agencies to create things more cost effectively. That has resulted in people trying to do things in-house more. The unfortunate by-product is the work suffers and ultimately everyone is unhappy. In 2018, I see brands looking for better strategic partnerships to help elevate the work, but also save on costs. We have already seen this in Q4 where Ntropic is getting involved early on to help come up with ideas and production strategies to set a project up for success. This results in a more efficient process that allows the work to get executed at a premium level while still making the numbers work.