Interviews

David Abraham, Founder, Wonderhood Studios

“The challenge is to bring better, strong, high content prime time ideas to bear on brand opportunities. Advertising-funded content is only ever going to be, for the time being, supplemental to core campaign goals."

Izzy Ashton

Assistant Editor, BITE

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David Abraham - Wonderhood Studios

Career to date:

2018, CEO & Founder, Wonderhood Studios
2010, CEO, Channel 4
2007, CEO, UK TV
2005, President & General Manager, Discovery Networks USA
2001, General Manager, Discovery Networks UK
1995, Founding Partner of St Luke’s
1990, Account Director, Chiat-Day

Creativebrief: Before we talk about Wonderhood Studios, please could you outline your career to date.

David Abraham: I’ve been in media for about 30 years. First half of it was very much in the creative agency world. I worked in companies like CDP and Chiat Day and I was one of the co-founders of St Luke’s. I then went into the media world and had an opportunity to go and run the Discovery Channel in the UK at the time when everything was going digital. I became a broadcaster and developed a portfolio of channels there and then had the opportunity of going to the US where I ran TLC which is a cable network in 90 million homes.

I had by then a lot of experience commissioning programs, all in the factual entertainment, lifestyle space. I had the good fortune to be offered the job as CEO of UKTV in 2007 and I put together a team that looked at the portfolio of channels and rebranded the whole business. One of the things that came out of that was Dave which became one of the most successful TV channels of that era, branded in a unique way with a clear distinctive proposition and editorial approach. That led to me becoming the Chief Executive of Channel 4 in 2010, a job I did for nearly eight years. I stood down towards the end of last year. Then had a bit of a rest and now I’m launching a new business called Wonderhood Studios.

Creativebrief: As founder of Wonderhood Studios, what’s your primary focus in building that?

David Abraham: My observation is that the creative industries have suffered from operating quite a lot of silos that have separated talent from solving problems in bigger ways. I’m a great believer in coordinating creative effort in a more integrated way to deliver better results.

It’s called Wonderhood Studios because there are three studios. We are going to have a long form content creation studio that will create content for channels and platforms but also for brands when that might be an area they want to look at. We’re going to have creative agency resource with strong strategic planning skills and obviously client relationship skills as well as creative skills to solve problems that brands are seeking to address as an alternative to the traditional agency approach. Then we’ve got a data analytics and insight team as well, that we’re bringing together that will feed insight into both of those sides of the business. My strong hunch is that these three activities sitting alongside each other in a new environment, in a new kind of structure will be very effective at producing great work and hopefully build long term relationships with brand owners.

“My observation is that the creative industries have suffered from operating quite a lot of silos that have separated talent from solving problems in bigger ways. I'm a great believer in coordinating creative effort in a more integrated way to deliver better results."

Creativebrief: With Wonderhood Studios, what do you think is the benefit of bringing TV programs and branded content all under one roof?

David Abraham: There are two ways of looking at it. One is when smart creative people get together they can produce bigger ideas. Part of the philosophy of the company is peer review, drawn a little bit from how Pixar operates as a studio. You get people on different projects contributing to and commenting on each other’s work. In a world of emergence there’s certainly an opportunity to work in that way, to build bigger ideas.

More specifically there are more and more clients I’m coming across, brand owners who are looking at how they can express their brand’s true content in an always-on world. They’re looking at editorial skills and saying, those are actually more or as useful to me as traditional creative agency skills. It’s a blend of core creative agency skills with these other skills brought together. Over time brands will increasingly express their marketing effort in ways that will be more diverse than how they’ve been, partly because of audience representation, partly because brands are always on in a digital world anyway.

We will obviously still have a core strength in video content, but we also want to be known for ideas and if those ideas are expressed strongly in digital posters or radio or pure internet then it will be about the idea. It happens to be the case that in the last ten years I’ve been very much at the centre of the TV world. But the way the TV world interacts with digital, the way it interacts online and the way it interacts in terms of streaming media has been a strong backdrop to the thinking I’m bringing to Wonderhood.

Creativebrief: What do you think are the key aspects to creating a successful TV program? Do you think that’s kind of the same as creating a successful brand campaign?

David Abraham: I don’t think it’s the same. I think they’re very closely related. I think they’re close cousins and they could even be siblings because good program makers who focus on finding hits are in the business of working out what’s new, fresh, original and can be done differently. And a lot of creative people in the ad world think very similarly. The difference is the length of time over which they execute. There’s a time frame around television which works to a different beat, a different cadence.

We’ve seen this over many decades that many directors from commercials can move into feature films. It’s often how you can bring talent and skill and execution to bring an idea alive which is as important as long as you’ve got the core idea. I’ve observed a lot of production companies getting into branding and a lot of creative agencies wanting to get into production. What tends to happen though is one activity becomes a subsidiary of the other. At Wonderhood we’re trying to create a level playing field between these activities because we think if we get people of similar levels of skills, experience and reputation working alongside each other, it’ll be more powerful.

“The challenge is to bring better, strong, high content prime time ideas to bear on brand opportunities. But what we're also mindful of is that we understand that brands will still want to execute according to their current business model and solutions. Advertising-funded content is only ever going to be, for the time being, supplemental to core campaign goals."

Creativebrief: Would you have brand-funded content that’s similar to TV?

David Abraham: We’ve got commercial breaks, sponsorship, ad-funded programming, all these different models. We’ve got channel sponsorship, streaming media sponsorship so, there are lots of different models for brands to interact with content already. But the majority of these thus far have not yielded big ideas. A lot of it is filler or it’s late night or daytime programming.

The challenge is to bring better, stronger, high content prime time ideas to bear on brand opportunities. But what we’re also mindful of is that we understand that brands still will want to execute according to their current business model and solutions. Advertising-funded content is only ever going to be, for the time being, supplemental to core campaign goals. What working with Wonderhood will provide clients is an opportunity to move into that world whilst still having their feet firmly in the world of delivering on their marketing goals in the year. In the next three to five years the way in which brands can communicate is going to continue to change and the primacy of strong ideas is not going to go away at all. If anything, it becomes more important.

Creativebrief: You said that one of the studios is data and analytics. Will those insight and ideas be fed from that into the other studios? Will all the studios work together?

David Abraham: They’ll work together and also the creative agency studio will have its own planning and strategic skills as well, taken from the top of the creative agency world. We’re mindful of the fact that the first conversation that is always to be had with clients is what’s the business problem and how can different choices around campaign planning bear fruit onto the creative process. But it always starts with planning and strategy. That can also feed how we’re thinking about what we bring to platforms as well because platforms are competing and it’s very cluttered. There’s a proliferation of outlets which in themselves need distinctive content.

Creativebrief: What have you seen in the past year that’s really inspired you, a piece of work or brand that you think’s already done or is doing this particularly well?

David Abraham: Red Bull is probably out there as the strongest example of all. Taking a brand proposition and making it into an extreme sports series of events and then making that into content. You’ve seen that work brilliantly for them and create a very valuable brand. But there are all sorts of experiential expressions of this which then become content whether it’s the O2 Arena in London which of course is a piece of branding or The Emirates Stadium. These are all examples of brands expressing themselves in ways which are meaningful and very permanent, and which also complement more tactical campaigns than advertising tends to be known for.

For us it is about saying what is the best big idea to express and then how might content wrap itself around that. There are so many brilliant experiments that have occurred. My most recent experience of Channel 4 before I left was to broadcast the Formula 1 brand from around the world, over 20 races from different countries. Formula 1 is a wonderful sport which has branding at its heart and is in itself a brand. All those components come together in something like Formula 1 which is content, and a sport and it also attracts personality and a lot of brand partnership.

“Interestingly the hit rate in terms of audiences, awards and acclaim given the amount of money spent I imagine will level off between all the different players because no one can have a monopoly on good taste."

Creativebrief: They’re all really huge ideas aren’t they. Do you think a similar thing can be executed on a smaller scale?

David Abraham: All things start small and meaningfully. Everything has to start somewhere. But when we’re bringing together the kinds of talent that Wonderhood is attracting, when you’ve got people of that ilk able to sit in a room with strategy, planning people from the creative agency world and think about these ideas in different ways, I think we’re going to have a lot of interesting conversations with clients.

Creativebrief: More personally, who or what are you inspired by outside of the industry?

David Abraham: I’m from the creative industries so whether it’s theatre or literature or film or food, all these things feed into how you work in your professional sphere of life. We’ve all got to be absorbing all these different stimulae and making those things relevant to the business challenges that we’re seeking to address. I enjoy like everyone else does box set dramas and the independent movies. One of my passions in the last few years has been being at Cannes but at the film festival because Film4 was so involved with so many important independent British films over the last few years.

Because I’ve been involved in a start-up which has raised some money and is drawing talent together I’ve really enjoyed watching Silicon Valley. It follows the ups and downs of setting something up from scratch.

Creativebrief: You talked about creating programs off the back of data and obviously that’s something that Netflix seem to do well. Do you look at Netflix as a model of something that you’d like to aspire to?

David Abraham: My understanding is Netflix is not actually using the data to make the shows. They’re using the data more to inform editorial decisions around genres and casting and the presentation of the marketing of the content. They brought a lot of great skill and insight to those decisions. But as an ex broadcaster I would say research departments have been doing that for a very long time, making deductions around what did work in the past and what might appeal in the future. Ultimately there is such a thing as editorial skill, curation and judgement in all media businesses.

Interestingly the hit rate in terms of audiences, awards and acclaim given the amount of money spent I imagine will level off between all the different players because no one can have a monopoly on good taste. There are hit shows coming from lots of different directions. Britain is very good at producing this high quality scripted content. It’s a great environment in which to operate.