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5 Minutes With… B-Reel



Two of B-Reels five founders, EVP Pelle Nilsson and CEO Anders Walqhuist

5 Minutes With… B-Reel


Ask anyone who’s ever played the board-game Risk and they’ll tell you that world domination can sneak up on you when you’re least expecting it. B-Reel are a production company who have quietly conquered adland with their collaborative demeanour and open-minded innovation.  The founders had a head start in the ‘creative arms’ race when they set up a digital production company in the late nineties – a time when most production houses still saw the web as a slagheap of low-quality virals. At the same time, the team were also running a commercial company that was developing a reputation for quality commercials. Now with feature film, content and product design branches all operating under the B-Reel umbrella and offices in Stockholm, New York, London and Los Angeles, the team is reigning supreme. We caught up with two of the company’s co-founders Pelle Nilsson and Anders Walqhuist to find out how B-Reel became the Queen Bee of global production.  
LBB> How did B-Reel start out?
PN> B-Reel started in Stockholm in 1999, but we also had a film production company which opened back in 1995, before we started doing digital stuff. Digital and film operated in parallel until 2009 when we put everything together under one roof. It’s not that we had a digital production company and then we found a couple of directors, or the other way around, where you have a film production company and you add a digital side. We’ve always been working in parallel and we have a tradition on both sides, which is good for us.
The short story is that we started in 1999 and we really had a vision of combining film with interactivity and animation. Back then we went around, talking about our vision, saying ‘we could do this, we could do that’, but people just didn’t understand what we were saying. Broadband wasn’t there and the money to do these sorts of projects wasn’t either. We did a few interactive fashion projects with friends that were pretty advanced for the time, we continued to do web stuff and started doing more animation and motion graphics. I would say at one point we were the most critically acclaimed motion graphics house in Sweden. Around 2004 things started to happen and we started to work quite closely with Forsman & Bodenfors and BBDO NY. 
Eventually we were able to start creating the projects we’d visualised six years earlier. Things took off very quickly. In 2005 we started working with Fallon Minneapolis, our first international client. That project was for Travelers, which was an insurance company. We built an online experience that allowed you to go through a house and play different games. We moved to New York in 2007, and then felt like London was happening and opened there. 
AW> We have always been about doing both traditional storytelling and digital, and delivering deeper and more emotional experiences on the internet. We started out in 1999 doing that – and that’s still what we’re aiming to do. Now we have also added to what we can deliver and have a content side, run by Arrow Kruse who used to be a producer at Wieden + Kennedy and we’re also organising real life events too.
PN> I want B-Reel to be known for the traditional TV commercials too – we just did Audi with Fillip Tellander, it’s beautiful and people should see that we can handle that.
LBB> When you first set up shop outside of Sweden, how receptive were people to how you were working?
AW> It took a while. I think that many people in the advertising industry still start off by thinking about linear scripts when they think about a campaign. In New York it took a year for us to get the first big project. Everybody wanted to meet us, they had seen what we had done before but we moved without any clients and we were essentially starting from scratch. In London, it was quite different – basically we got a project out of every meeting we had. There wasn’t even a start-up period. We just grew. Ironically many of the advocates we had when we started in London, are in New York now. It must have been that London, at the time had a new generation of digital creative.
LBB> The modular set up set-up of B-Reel is quite well known, but do you share work across the offices?
PN> We do sometimes, but we have a similar set-up in each of our offices where we have a producer, an executive producer, art director, designer, then developers and motion graphics people. That’s the set-up we think works because we’re very much about the collaborative process – the Swedish collective thinking. Ideas can come from a producer or the motion graphics guy or the creative director. Today integrated production is all about having a creative vision and solving problems. If you’re doing things that have never been done before you have to have a very creative producer. You have to be extremely open and creative.
LBB> How do you keep up with the pace of change – do you try to predict what will happen next or is it about riding the wave?
PN> It’s about the people you hire. You have to be very humble about the world. You have to change all the time, and the people you look for have to be able to change too. They have to be agile and flexible. We’re very much about that – it’s hard doing business like that but if you look around at the award shows - every year everything is always changing. Last year it was microsites, this year it is apps. So how do you keep up with that? We’re always looking for good programmers and good developers. 
LBB> How do you go about finding people with the B-Reel mentality?
PN> We’re always looking for good people because it’s super tough to find adaptable and knowledgeable individuals. If you can combine the Swedishness with British and American styles of thinking, then that’s a good mix. I love the American mentality of trying to push yourself and get yourself heard, and I think if you can combine that with the collaborative Swedish approach, that’s a good balance.
LBB> Just as your producers need to be multi-skilled generalists, do directors have to be skilled and have an understanding of different media?
AW> I think you can be a really good commercials director creating forward-thinking work just by using your ability to tell stories in an interesting way. Of course, if you’re working on an integrated project, it’s easier to work with a director who understands the technical constraints. Then again, we can work with a very traditional director as long as they are open to collaboration. We have digital experts – art directors, CDs, motion directors – involved in the whole process, so you don’t have to be a multifaceted director.
LBB> The realm of ‘digital’ is changing too, with more and more people accessing content on their smartphones. How is this affecting the sort of work you’re making?
AW> We’re doing a lot of mobile content and have been pushing it for four or five years. But for a while it was always that mobile was crossed out. It feels a little bit like the same thing is happening now with apps – it’s the last thing on the list. That’s changing though – we did a big job with H&M in Stockholm and everything had to be designed from the point of view of ‘mobile first’. 
We did ‘The Bravest Man’ for Bobby Womack when his comeback album came out and that was a mobile-only experience. It was based on the constraints you have on an iPhone, an Android or an iPad – we only put in about one per cent consideration for desktop computers. Of course the next project might be for a desk top computer and might require Flash but then people won’t be able to access it on iPhone because of Flash…it really depends on what the agency and brand needs.
LBB> In regard to digital, are all the regional markets that you’re work within at a similar level?
AW> When it comes to digital, I actually think New York is ahead of London. When things happen they happen on a big scale. There’s a lot of bulk work too, the agency pyramid is so wide, so every year there are a couple of really, really good projects. I think they put money behind what they are doing; there are some serious digital budgets. 
London is a hot hub for advertising and is so strong when it comes to storytelling, though it’s not as interested in digital.  Having said that, London is going through a really interesting time. We get really good briefs from London now, but a year ago every really creative brief that the London office received was coming from Europe. I think there’s a dynamic in development – London was ahead early on, then it dipped back and went a bit more traditional and now it’s coming back.
Swedish agencies are putting out a lot of digital work – it’s part of the plan, it’s not an add-on. Forsman & Bodenfors start from a digital and mobile angle. From the clients’ perspectives there’s no question, they have to put part of their budget into digital because the results speak for themselves, and the agencies have to respond to that.
LBB> Your newest office is the Los Angeles outpost – how are you finding things there?
PN> I would say it’s different. There are fewer agencies, they are bigger and it takes a bit more time than New York. There are definitely opportunities being so close to Hollywood. For example, the Intel Toshiba project The Beauty Inside was a content-heavy project and that sort of thing really works in L.A. We did it with a feature director Drake Doremus who made an independent movie called Like Crazy that won ‘Best Film’ at Sundance 2011. 
AW> There are so many opportunities in L.A. but there are also many constraints. A lot of the agencies there work with a small roster of clients.  I think it’s very collaborative, if you run into a problem, people solve it together and in that respect, it’s very Japanese. But the market is smaller and the budgets are also smaller.

LBB> Speaking of feature films directors, what movie projects have you been working on recently?
AW> We have just worked on a film which has turned out to be the most viewed documentary in Sweden for 30 years. It’s about Olof Palme, the former prime minister, who was murdered. The family were involved and we had access to I-don’t-know-how-many rolls of private super 8 footage. It was a huge success and it was something we really wanted to do.
LBB> So with offices in London, New York and LA are you looking to open up and start working elsewhere? Asia, for example?
AW> We did some work in India with our director Popcore (Anders Forsman) with Bang Bang Films for the Indian Premier League cricket season. That was a nice one; it got a lot of press in India. 

We did a job for Volkswagen with Ogilvy in Shanghai and Beijing, with Graham Fink. They did the digital part themselves but we backed them up on it and we did the film. There’s a huge demand there – about 27 per cent of Volkswagens are sold in China. It’s hard to do digital there because there’s that huge internet wall, but we would love to do production there. We looked at it, I was there for two weeks but it’s such a complicated market. I think there are very few creatives who are dying to do really good digital work. We met some really good people but they are really few and far between. 85 per cent of the agency are Chinese speakers and we’re not; that’s also an issue since we built our company culture around the principle that everyone can share ideas and there’s no hierarchy.
LBB> What’s next for B-Reel?
PN> I hope we can continue to do the sort of projects we set out to do and that we can grow the content and concept side. In Sweden, we also have the whole feature film side of things – not that we want to become a big feature company but maybe we can combine that with our creative side. I think that’s a pretty nice vision to have. We’re also trying to be more and more proactive in terms of doing R&D and creating product. We have a new department called B-Reel Product.
AW> We’ve done it in the past but we didn’t focus on it. We’re taking the ideas that pop up internally all the time, but actually doing something about it. You might talk about it round the coffee table or when you’re drunk but it stays there. Now we have a really good stable process that allows us to get something made. We have some really clever people running it, like Riccardo Giraldi and Clements Brandt.
LBB> What do you think B-Reel as a company can get out of this product design branch?
PN> Some things will just be R&D that can be used in future campaigns. We did a Scalextric thing which allowed you to steer the car using brainwaves.  It was just a case of taking components that already existed and putting together to make something really cool.

AW> If it’s a very successful product externally we’ll aim for money from it. It’s a different business model – normally we sell hours and hold onto ideas that we have in case they match a brief that comes in from an agency, but that brief might never happen. It can take a very long time to sell something into an agency. Waiting for the right question to our answer can feel a bit futile. Some of these ideas are building on technology and openings in the market that are happening right now. It’s new and it’s fresh now, but five months down the road everybody might be doing it so we want to take care of it now. We might make money, we might add to our business model by development, own and license IP, and it’s a really good thing for people in the company.
It has to be marketable and sellable and somewhere down the line it has to make money - but it’s also about making the culture work. People have so many ideas. If a member of B-Reel has a spark of something that they want to pursue, they don’t have to quit their job and set up their own company and mortgage their house to make it happen. They can make it happen and they get support. It’s about nurturing the idea generation culture within the company.


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