2020 has seen many changes in the M&E industry, but perhaps none has had a bigger and potentially more lasting effect than the COVID-19 pandemic.
Workflows and processes that normally require close collaboration—not just intellectually and creatively, but also physically—have been upended as everyone from live sports production crews to those in TV production control rooms and studios have looked for alternatives that make it possible to comply with social distancing mandates while maintaining the quality of their shows. The same is true of movie studios, post-production facilities and production companies.
As a solution, many have transitioned to remote workflows where creative staff work from home using tools like VPNs to access their on-premise tools or the cloud where those tools reside virtually.
With a new wave of the pandemic prompting government officials to talk about or actually implement new mandatory lockdowns, it seemed appropriate to speak to a successful media company that’s built its creative side on the foundation of remote workflows.
TheSoul Publishing is one such company. The independent digital studio produces original video content for its channels, some of which, like 5-Minute Crafts, are among the most popular channels on YouTube. It reaches hundreds of millions of Facebook followers and YouTube subscribers with content produced by some 1,500 people—about 1,200 of which worked from home before the pandemic.
In this interview, Arthur Mamedov, chief operating officer of TheSoul Publishing, discusses the challenges that must be overcome when so many work remotely and the strategies the company has pursued to find success.
(An edited transcript.)
TVTechnology: TheSoul Publishing manages teams across multiple countries, so I would imagine your company is well-versed in remote workflows. Did that position you to deal with the work-from-home, lockdown mandates imposed during the COVID-19 outbreak? If so, how?
Arthur Mamedov: Our business was already well set up to handle the challenges of this year, with about 80% of our 1,500-person team working remotely prior to the pandemic. As a result, we had already established workflows and developed technologies that foster cross-collaboration between internal teams and the consistent creation of quality content, no matter where our team members are working. But the remote-work advantages we’ve developed go well beyond production to touch all facets of our growing global business.
Our remote team is a key component of the corporate culture we nurture. As we are not having to build a completely new foundation for remote workers, our focus can remain on what we do best: producing and delivering engaging content for our viewers and distribution partners.
We are also able to invest resources focused on enhancing the overall experience and work environment for our physically separated team members. This investment includes ongoing workflow improvements and engagement activities, such as well-being seminars and leadership classes.
TVT: What are the sticking points in achieving greater workflow efficiencies when workers are at home and spread across the globe? What can be done to address them?
AM: Especially when it comes to the development of complex content like video, adhering to specific operating principles and efficient remote interaction is paramount in uniting people to be productive and successful regardless of their location. These principles include radical transparency and accountability across teams, direct feedback and the implementation of relevant and up-to-date technologies that can help maintain digital agility.
As with any other type of company that uses a platform to manage its work and workforce, there needs to be a good balance of basic capabilities and customization capacity—both so the team can streamline workflows in the way that makes the most sense for them and so the creative process can thrive.
Beyond what’s available now, media companies and content creators have an immediate opportunity to start thinking about new ways they can make technology work harder for them. For example, how can AI help to reduce mundane tasks? Or, how can technology help to drive scale in the form of localization?
TVT: With 1,500 workers around the world, what type of help have you given them to succeed at their creative tasks? It must be hard managing a globally diverse creative workforce?
AM: We are fortunate to have a wide range of highly creative team members—from researchers, producers and editors to sound mixers, translators and voice-over artists—all of whom require and expect the freedom to work in a truly creative environment, where they can contribute to a unique “whole.”
Alongside this understanding, a lot of the success we’ve had in growing an outstanding remote workforce has been rooted in the production and design processes we’ve put in place. This allows us to streamline the hiring process and find the right people from a global talent pool who are a fit for this type of remote-first company culture. We look for talent that exhibits a strong capacity for self-starting and managers who are able to trust employees to do their work properly, but also provide ample support and guidance when needed.
TVT: To what degree have you leveraged automation to improve efficiencies in content creation?
AM: We are always looking for new ways to use automation to bring new efficiencies to the forefront. Today, automation is best suited to assist creative teams with their daily tasks.
Being overwhelmingly pro-tech is one of the main factors contributing to TheSoul Publishing’s success, as it allows us to run an efficient distributed business. And having a vast product suite built around both third-party and proprietary data allows us to apply that data across the entire business. In other words, data can help facilitate all sorts of interactions ranging from how emails are exchanged and projects are managed, to the way reports are submitted and our content is created.
Our goal is to create a synergy between the technology and our employees in a way that optimizes human work, leaving most challenging, custom and creative tasks to our colleagues while helping teams automate everything else to a point where they are at peak efficiency.
TVT: How does analysis of social media play into driving content for clients?
AM: Over the years, we’ve been able to develop a strong understanding of what works across social media channels by examining the performance of our own content. We have a pretty good idea about what will inspire likes, shares or conversations based on the data and analytical insights these social platforms share with their creators. We are able to blend our experience with this data to produce new content, looking back to see what’s been successful in the past and building on those learnings to ride current trends.
Through this approach, we can make recommendations about what type of content to develop and what will resonate with the desired audience, while also taking into account each channels’ own brand identity. On top of that, we’ve accumulated tons of insights and best practices over the years, which allows us to be fairly successful when it comes to predicting the future performance of the content we’re producing.
TVT: The media industry has taken a massive hit as brands look to economize during COVID-19 and advertising revenue declines, yet TheSoul Publishing company is growing. How?
AM: The ad revenue decline was very short-term, and has started to see some recovery in the second half of this year. We’re now seeing increased viewership compared to pre-COVID, and stabilized ad demand, both of which have translated into business growth.
But whether or not the market is favorable, it goes back to the flexible technology and processes put into place that enable us to produce more than 500 original videos per month. With the demand for fun and inspiring DIY content at an all-time high, our strategy has been validated as we’ve reached nearly half a billion subscribers on YouTube this year. Interest in channels like 5-Minute Crafts to Bright Side to Slick Slime Sam has spiked, and our diverse portfolio of highly successful channels continues to experience demand and enthusiasm.
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Phil Kurz is a contributing editor to TV Tech. He has written about TV and video technology for more than 30 years and served as editor of three leading industry magazines. He earned a Bachelor of Journalism and a Master’s Degree in Journalism from the University of Missouri-Columbia School of Journalism.