The co-founder of the company speaks to LBB’s Addison Capper about moving into an advisory role at Technicolor, who purchased The Mill in 2015
Little Black Book has learned that Robin Shenfield, the CEO and co-founder of The Mill, is stepping down from his role at the company at the end of 2019 to move into an advisory role at Technicolor, the company that purchased The Mill in 2015.
He will work with Technicolor's global president David Patton on the company's advertising industry strategy and the move is believed to be part of a plan that has been in place for a number of months. Technicolor also owns other players in the marketing VFX and post space, including MPC.
In an interview with Little Black Book Robin said that “the catalyst” for the sale to Technicolor was that he saw the post-production industry on the brink of “tumultuous industry change”. He adds: “We had to have a partner-owner for The Mill that not only had a long view but also shared our belief that, while there would be bumps, change would enhance not diminish our opportunities.”
Four years on from the acquisition and Robin is still upbeat about The Mill’s relationship with Technicolor - something of a rarity among creative business owners that have sold to a larger entity. But Robin and the crew at Technicolor - especially CEO Frederic Rose - were quite well acquainted once the deal had gone through, having first opened discussion five years prior. Just last year Frederic told Robin and his team how he “fell in love” with The Mill. What’s more, factoring into The Mill’s success has been Robin’s ability to work with private equity partners to identify opportunities and drive growth. The Mill was initially backed by the band U2 and its management, then later, Candover Investments, 3i, The Carlyle Group and Equistone, before its acquisition in 2015 by Technicolor.
“Perhaps unusually for a creative business, we had success working with a number of finance partners,” Robin says. “I am proud of making that work but knew that partners with a four-to-seven-year time frame to exit were unsuited to the more volatile ride ahead. So the ask in 2015 was for someone unfazed by change and confident in our team. Four years into the journey I am happy with the choice we made.”
Robin's move away from the hands-on role of CEO is set to mark a big change for both himself and the company that he played a part in founding 30 years ago. But he believes that by stepping down from the overarching role of CEO will allow him time to focus his mind more. “My focus is The Mill,” he says when I ask him if his new role will involve working with other Technicolor brands. “No longer being at the 'helm' - as everyone's been describing it this week - feels a little strange but I believe we're at the point where I can achieve more by focusing on one thing - strategy - rather than spreading myself across everything.”
Thanks, in part, to funding by U2 and the band’s management, The Mill was the first all-digital visual effects company. Robin has been deeply involved in finite details of all aspects of its growth, from launching Mill Film in 1997, to entering the US in 2002 and overseeing the company's move into more technology focused projects with Mill+. He has been a driving force in the growth of The Mill from a 30-person start-up in 1990 to a team of over 1,100 today across studios in London, New York, Los Angeles, Chicago and the newest addition, Berlin.
The company became a global frontrunner in post production after winning an Academy Award for VFX on Ridley Scott’s ‘Gladiator’ in 2001 - the first British firm to win in that category, and just four years after the company was formed. Unsurprisingly, that - specifically being greeted by the whole company in the office reception - is one of Robin’s proudest achievements. Since then The Mill has continually diversified its capabilities and today is synonymous with innovation in all facets of production, experiential, immersive and IP.
Outside of The Mill, Robin is open about the fact that he’s “always wanted to have at least one other business activity”. He is the chairman of Monterosa, an audience engagement business that recently ranked highly in a chart of fast-growing tech companies in the Sunday Times.
But, as mentioned, his focus is still The Mill. And while the industry that it operates in experiences the tumultuous change that he speaks of, Robin sees that change playing into the hands of The Mill as it continues to add new capabilities and technologies to its arsenal. While agencies continue to grapple with the disintegration of the AOR model, companies like The Mill continue to diversify and break free from the post production label with which they were previously marked.
“[I see The Mill in] a state of change because, while visual effects craft and storytelling is the foundation of everything we do, we will build a broader future by adding new capabilities,” he says, before citing recent words by Nick Law
, the new Apple VP and former global CCO of Publicis Groupe and CCO of R/GA New York, as a source of inspiration. “He called out the need for creative people to spend more time in the technology, the need for a new creative grammar and work unconstrained by the straightjacket of the one big idea. I am paraphrasing. He was talking about agencies but it resonated with me because it's what we've been doing with technology (of course, our natural habitat) but also through expanding our skills in strategic design, in direction and experiential work.
“Visual effects as a definition of what we do works no better for us today than the legacy AOR model Nick describes as being timed-out for agencies. We're still a creative engine room for brands but the opportunities for making and creating are widening.”