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5 Minutes with… Justin Pandolfino

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LBB’s Addison Capper chats with Nice Shoes' Managing Director Justin about the importance of evolution over revolution, making time for Ninja Turtles and branching into features and episodics…

5 Minutes with… Justin Pandolfino
Moving schools as a kid is tricky business. You need to win the trust and acceptance of a group of ruthless kids the same age as you. Justin Pandolfino was faced with exactly that when he changed schools between the third and fourth grades. His acceptance among his fellow students was cemented after his dad, Dominic Pandolfino, attended a ‘bring your dad to school’ day and showed Rappin’ Ribbit a three-minute music video of a 3D animated frog. Back then, Dominic worked at Manhattan Transfer, and it marked the first occasion that Justin realised just how cool that actually was. 
 
Nice Shoes was founded in 1996 and the company is still at the forefront of post production today, as well as having capabilities for design, animation and just about every step of the production pipeline. Nice Shoes has also been a long-time advocate of remote working, taking steps to implement remote practices more than 10 years ago - steps that have helped them get ahead of the trend during its Covid-19 acceleration. Much of this evolution has been driven by Justin, who has been managing director of Nice Shoes since 2015. LBB’s Addison Capper chats with Justin about the importance of evolution over revolution, making time for Ninja Turtles and branching into features and episodics…
 


LBB> Nice Shoes is coming up to 25 years old! Why do you think the company has managed to stay so relevant over such a long period of time?

 

Justin> Nice Shoes has always had a strong sense of purpose and a ton of heart. We’ve always kept a core set of non-negotiable values front and center in every decision we make. Top talent, trusted partnership, and a great client experience are what started this studio, and are always going to be relevant. I keep that in mind in everything I do, as does the entire Nice Shoes team.  

This context is easy to work within and there is still plenty of room for creativity and innovation. The definition of top talent may morph as skill requirements change or as remote work unlocks the global talent pool. Likewise, the definition of an exceptional client experience may change drastically as projects move to the cloud, less work is supervised, and work from home becomes the norm. But the concept of a trusted partnership is something that hasn’t really changed over the years. We want to feel like a seamless extension of our client’s teams, and for them to feel at home with us. Trust allows us to better understand our partners, and to grow with their needs. 

What helped prepare us for the current situation, and for any future really, is that we’ve remained in a constant state of evolution with the client’s needs at the center of everything we do. Listening and serving our clients will always keep our value proposition relevant. This has been evident during the pandemic more than ever and our team’s flexibility and willingness to adapt has been incredible.
 
It is my job to navigate these changes and, within this context, my opportunity to put my stamp on the business. The constant here is that we will always let client demand lead the process of change.  



LBB> You've been the MD for over five years, and a part of Nice Shoes for nearly half its history. How have you worked with your father, CEO Dominic Pandolfino, to reshape and evolve the studio?



Justin> I'm fortunate enough to have grown up in this business. Dom has introduced me to all of his friends, which, for the most part, are our best clients and some of the most talented artists in the industry. In turn, they’ve been advocates for connecting Nice Shoes to the next generation of creatives and producers. We’re working together to build on what Dom created with his trusted friends and partners.

I think Dom would be the first to say that it’s not just him, nor is it just the two of us. Our professional relationship is an ongoing dialogue and exchange of ideas that’s enriched by the leadership team that we’ve built together, and every single person believes wholeheartedly in what we’re trying to achieve. We couldn’t have put this team together without our joint input and vision, and we couldn’t have executed on that vision without this team. 

This teamwork enabled us to grow from a single location to spanning the globe in just under a decade. We have so many other ideas we haven’t put into play yet, all rooted in what was started a quarter of a century ago, with an eye towards the next 25 years and beyond. 



LBB> What are your main aims and ambitions for the company over the next 25 years?

 
 
Justin> In short, evolution not revolution. I spent the first half of my career at Nice Shoes focusing on establishing our sales and marketing team. We have always had a great company, but in seeing how the industry was evolving, recognized the need to invest in sales and marketing. I led that effort, applying lessons learned in business school and across countless books and workshops to build and train our team. I was then able to grow into the role of managing director, looking at how the company could expand its focus. Around this time, when we were celebrating our 20th anniversary, we looked at ourselves, what we were known for, and what we could evolve into in order to meet the needs of our modern clients and stand out in a hypercompetitive market.
 
At first, this included expanding our advertising services to offer end-to-end production and post. But then we looked outward, and how we could service a wider range of clients that needed content, which led to the establishment of an experiential team, and then into the realm of film & episodic with VFX and digital intermediate. These teams have even started to collaborate, exploring virtual production solutions for clients wishing to continue production safely during the pandemic. 
 
In the short term, we want to continue to build on our end-to-end proposition. No matter what the budget, we want our clients to feel like they received a great value by partnering with us, that we pushed their concept beyond expectations. I think part and parcel of this is staying on top of advances in technology. This year has really proved that we can grow geographically by using tech in innovative ways - not only for the work we create but in our processes. However I think the real key to all of this will be to continue seeking out diverse talent - of all skills and demographics. After all, as a service business our product is our people. Perhaps the most important activity of our business is meeting new artists, nurturing talent, and growing and maintaining those relationships. Having a broad range of diverse skill sets, backgrounds and life experiences is integral to building bespoke teams for each project, and representative of the needs of each client. 



LBB> So, this has been a very different year for leaders - a challenging one. Nice Shoes is known for its family culture. How have you kept that alive?



Justin> We increased the frequency of our company meetings. Previously, we would meet quarterly, now we get together every month to share company information and just catch up with each other. I think everybody loves it and you know it's a lot less formal that way. It's easy to do demos on screen too, so we've been able to show work or show amazing new things like virtual production.  Once we get through all the important info and new work,  I always tell them ‘I hope you have a drink handy’ for the Q&A session. Ultimately, it transitions into a big group chat about what’s going on outside of work. I think company culture really comes through when people can hear about mishaps with kids going to school, new hobbies, pets interrupting Zoom and things like that.

Day to Day we use Slack which is really important to communicate with everybody. We also use this plugin, Donut, to connect people for half hour social one on ones - and that extends to our families. My kids even got a half hour with our marketing director Paul [DeKams] to learn how to draw Ninja Turtles. It was just the best use of a 30 minute Zoom! They have it down now and they draw Ninja Turtles everywhere!



LBB> Let's talk about the present for a bit. You've been quite vocal about the virtues of remote working during the pandemic, and Nice Shoes has been working this way for some time. When and why did you first move to allow for remote working?

 
 
Justin> We’ve been pretty vocal about remote working not just recently, but for over a decade. We opened our first remote location in Boston so that our clients in that city could connect with us without traveling to New York. Talent was primarily clustered in NY and LA so we had a lot of clients that were flying in just for a color session and then flying back home right after. So it was driven by client demand. We’ve always been heavily focused on R&D and this was a case of the technology and the client’s needs matching up at the right time.
 
From there, we grew our remote network to ~12 locations and then evolved some of those locations into satellite offices, manned by an artist on the ground, and eventually into our own standalone offices. The focus began with connecting clients in other cities with our NY-based talent, but that has evolved into connecting the best talent with the right projects and a rallying cry that we need to be location agnostic.  We can collaborate with any client and any artist anywhere, connected through our robust cloud-based infrastructure.
 
As we’ve evolved -- and especially during the pandemic -- we have focused on redefining how the “front of house” needs to look, feel, and operate. Ultimately, this is shaped by the client’s expectations and Covid-19 has helped to rapidly evolve those expectations. Since we launched our first remote location, technology and the Internet has evolved to a point where so much more is capable. 
 
Remote work has always faced many hurdles and objections, mainly because change can be scary. When everyone was forced to adopt this way of working all at once, we found that people were much more adaptable to finding creative solutions to see a concept produced rather than abandoned. Our collaboration with Droga5 for Ad Council’s Seize The Awkward is a great example of the current remote model. This was the first fully-remote production for the agency and for our team and it illustrated to everyone that we could come together to craft a powerful, high quality piece of content without anyone being in the same physical space. 



LBB> And what are the benefits that you see of this way of working? Not just for Nice Shoes but the production / advertising industry at large...



Justin> Talent curation is the biggest benefit. Remote work means that an artist can live in any city. This allows us to curate the best talent from around the globe. This year has taught us there are no barriers to this possibility. It's so exciting. For clients, it means we can get very specific in matching artists styles and skill sets to projects. It also means we can implement a ‘Chase the Sun’ model which keeps production moving 24 hours a day. This not only leads to quicker turnarounds but it means all our service offerings have infinite scalability and no downtime.

The real win is for the talent themselves. Work/life balance is so important for fueling great creative output and the acceptance of remote work allows for talent to design their lifestyle. If geography is not a factor, talent can live anywhere in the world and, without travel time, there is significantly more time for family, friends and hobbies.



LBB> I’ve also heard you’re a huge film buff - Big Lebowski in particular. How exciting is it to be getting into features and episodic at Nice Shoes?



Justin> Ha! Well, I love a lot of movies, but the Big Lebowski may be my favorite. And I got my start as a PA on film sets. To answer your question, it’s very exciting to start working on entertainment projects. Don’t get me wrong, I love what we do with advertising. Having been to business school and grown up in advertising, that has become a big part of my life and something I am infinitely interested in. I love the effect that advertising can have on individual brands and on the global economy.  But, when I meet with friends and family from outside the advertising world, they want to hear about the movies and shows we’ve worked on.

A passion for film is a reason that many of our artists got into this business. So for our existing talent it represents more opportunity and the chance to diversify their reel and skill sets by taking on new genres, collaborators and challenges. It has pushed us to look at a number of systems and processes, and there’s been a lot of interesting back and forth amongst our advertising, immersive, and film & episodic teams. I think everyone has been learning from each other, and that’s going to improve everyone’s output for their respective clients. 

Breaking into the film & episodic world is another arrow in our quiver and I think there is a perfect storm aiding us in our launch. Led by streaming services -- such as Netflix, HBOMax, Amazon, AppleTV+, and Hulu -- this market has seen explosive growth over the last few years and that will continue in 2021.  On top of that, the pandemic has increased the rate of content consumption while, simultaneously, decreasing the rate of production of new content.  In 2021, there will be more demand than supply, which is a recipe for rapid growth for this division.



LBB> I feel like the post industry has a unique issue when it comes to diversity because quite particular skills are needed when it comes to being an artist - there are a select amount of student courses feeding the industry. What are your thoughts on that?

 

Justin> When Black Lives Matter exploded into the nation’s consciousness, we took a step back and looked at our place in the industry to see how we could do better. Nice Shoes always has and always will be an inclusive employer that cares deeply about all of our team members, regardless of skin color. And yet, we’re not as diverse as we would like to be. Looking deeper, we realized just how grossly underrepresented people of color are in our industry as a whole.  

At Nice Shoes, we decided that the best way to help was to offer our experience, effort, and equipment to help train people of color that are interested in learning and developing their production and post-production skills. While we’ve supported a number of organizations in the past, we believe there is more we can do. In particular, we've structured partnerships with diversity focused organizations that include mentorships, speaking events, one-on-one artist support, and access to our equipment. We also remain committed to hiring talent at all levels from these organizations as we grow.



LBB> Which technological advancements within the industry are you particularly excited about and why?



Justin> There's a few things but I'd say the most exciting for me is the use of machine learning to allow software to recognize elements in a 2D space the way a human would. Just like a human can differentiate a face or a sky from the rest of the image even though we're looking at a 2D rendition of 3D space. This allows software to do things automatically that would take hours of meticulous tracking in the past. Eventually, software will be able to recognize all aspects of the original 3D environment which will allow for artists to replicate everything from lighting to set design in a post environment.

One of our creative directors, Ninaad Kulkarni, has been doing really spectacular development and ideation in Unreal. He joined us with a focus on creating immersive activations, but we’re finding that the technology behind AR, VR and gaming can be put to such great use in creating spectacular environments for commercials, feature films, and episodic series. 'Rebirth' is a project he’s currently working on, and there’s a few other projects in various phases of ideation that we can’t quite share yet.



 

LBB> What's been keeping you busy outside of work during lockdown? Have you discovered any weird and wonderful new hobbies?

 

Justin> With two little kids, I don’t have time for a hobby, though I have a list of things that I’d like to jump into “one day”. Essentially, being in quarantine with my kids has given me a ton of time to spend with them, which I wouldn’t have otherwise had and I hope it has made me a better Dad. These last seven months have been a blast as I’ve coaxed my kids into learning about and playing with all of the toys, cartoons, and movies that I was into as a child. The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles theme song runs non-stop in our house!

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Nice Shoes, Wed, 09 Dec 2020 15:54:07 GMT