Fearless - Ep 04: "The Magicians" - Jon Collins / Framestore

"The Magicians"

"What are the keys that we need that will unlock other doors into these fantasy worlds?"

Jon Collins, the President of Integrated Advertising at Framestore, runs one of the most multi-disciplinary and technologically complex creative businesses in the world. He talks to me about how he has guided the company through its evolution from a classic visual effects supplier into a collaborative network of world-renowned, award-winning creators of disruptive and immersive consumer-centric magic.

Three Takeaways:

  • The importance of having a clear and inspiring vision.
  • A willingness to be experimental is critical to a company's evolution.
  • Set your own standards very high and only get into areas in which you can be excellent.  


Episode 4: Jon Collins

Charles:                                   Each week, we talk to leaders of the world’s most disruptive companies. How they’re jumping into the fire, crossing the chasm, and blowing up the status quo. Leaders who have mastered the art of turning the impossible into the profitable. Stay tuned, because in the next half hour, anything could happen. Hello, and welcome to this episode of Fearless. In the right hands, creativity changes the way we look at the world. Inspiring us to find nuances, and explore new possibilities. At its best, creativity is a magical force that unlocks hearts and changes minds. Frame Store is a company that makes magic on a daily basis. They were originally a classic visual effects company, bringing the impossible to movie and television screens. Harry Potter, Fantastic Beasts, Guardians of the Galaxy, and Oscars for the Golden Compass and Gravity. Their television commercial work for Guinness surfer has been recognized as the most iconic ad of all time.

Over the last five years, the company has evolved dramatically, taking their multidisciplinary talents, and venturing into the world of virtual reality, content, and experience. The results of that transformation is that their field trip to Mars virtual reality experience for Lockheed Martin and McCann was the most awarded campaign of the cam lien Festival last year. They were recently named production company of the year. The challenges of changing the focus, workforce, and collaboration habits of 1000 people spread across 12 disciplines and five offices is a challenge worthy of magicians.

I first met Jon Collins the year I moved to New York, 2008. We come from the same culture and the same era. Jon is the president of integrated advertising in Frame Store. Which means that he is responsible for most of the work the company produces that is into feature film. I spoke to him recently about how a musician ended up leaving one of the world’s most visual companies, about his own journey from the United Kingdom to the United States, and about how he’s guided Frame Store’s evolution from a visual effects supplier of commercials, to a content and experience partner for brands and agencies. Jon, welcome, good to have you here.

Jon Collins:                            Thank you, it’s nice to be here.

Charles:                                   What’s your first memory of creativity?

Jon Collins:                            First memory of creativity, other than the Everson that failed in the late sixties, which had a lot going for it. I would say probably music. I grew up as a kid in Liverpool in the sixties, very aware of music. I think that was the first thing that really meant something to me in a creative way.

Charles:                                   What kind of music?

Jon Collins:                            Well, it was largely around the Beatles as a kid, and this is the mid to late sixties. Liverpool had a story about the Beatles, had some sort of connection with the Beatles. I had my two uncles went to school with two of the Beatles. Was with Paul and George.

Charles:                                   They actually went to school with them?

Jon Collins:                            Yeah, to Liverpool Institute. Yeah.

Charles:                                   Did they really?

Jon Collins:                            Yeah, in the mid fifties, yeah.

Charles:                                   They must have some stories.

Jon Collins:                            Yeah, yeah, they have. Like I say, everyone in Liverpool has got a story about the Beatles in some way or another. It felt, as a kid, like they were almost friends of the family.

Charles:                                   Did they come around for tea?

Jon Collins:                            Yeah, they often just popped in. Nice cup of tea. It’s funny, already we’re two minutes into this podcast, and I’ve just [inaudible 00:04:07] Beatles, and it’s funny that I was having a conversation with my brother not too long back, and he was saying that why I think those things felt so important to us is because he, from his perspective, and it’s true for me, never really felt like we belonged in one place. Particularly I think with something like Everson. The Beatles we felt like our pop band, our thing, but with everything, I felt fully accepted in that thing. The only qualification was you had to support the club. That's all. Coming full circle, I feel that New York is exactly the same thing, which is why I feel completely at home in New York, because I feel it’s another place that I am fully accepted for who I am because of the energy I bring to the thing.

Charles:                                   When you were growing up and music side to have an influence on you, did you play? Are you going to watch? What was your exposure to that?

Jon Collins:                            Yeah, both. Obviously, as a little kid, even in school I remember playing, they’re trying to teach us the violin in the school in Liverpool, which didn’t really mean anything to us then. Folksongs that I had no connection with, other than one of them was used as a [inaudible 00:05:30] theme, which was also the run out for [inaudible 00:05:33]. All those things meant nothing to me. Then when I heard pop music, that then sparked all of this mind blowing like, “Wow, what the hell is this?” Quickly, I picked up a guitar. My dad had a guitar, which usually he never played, but I then picked it up, and then for the next probably 10 years, never had a guitar out of my hands. Yeah, I was playing in bands, and all sorts of stuff in my teens. Because that was my outlet for that early creativity. I thought just playing stuff, and playing music. I still do, I still feel that sense of joy that is hard to find lots of other places in life right now.

Charles:                                   Yeah, that’s absolutely true. I think the notion of how you find your voice. We were talking about this last night, but the notion of how you find your voice is, as soon as you get older, I think is increasingly important to become a more instinctive reference point. Also, I think it’s, in general, is we’re living through this strange time, this notion of who are we and who do we want to be? Is an increasingly important part of self reflection.

Jon Collins:                            Yeah, that’s absolutely right. Also, what we can contribute. What difference we make. Depending on what the week it is my view will probably change, but the one hand, here we are, insignificant beings in a moment of time. On the other hand, if you’ve got a splitting headache, it’s the worst thing in the world. I think finding your voice, I think that’s absolutely right. Creativity in a large way is about doing that. Being an individual, but having a perspective, may be changing someone else’s perspective, maybe finding universal themes, or way of connecting with people. Having that view, which is why I love all forms of art. Painting, music. I draw the line probably at dance, but theater.

Charles:                                   I saw you dancing at your wedding. I was very impressed actually.

Jon Collins:                            Well yeah, exactly. Hopefully that’s the last wedding I’ll have, and therefore, probably the last dance I’ll do. I think that form of self-expression is not only an active catharsis, but it’s also, I think you’re right and it gets to a point where you think, “What am I doing?” We talk about playing music. I can hopefully bust me way through a lot of different people’s styles, but in the end you get to the question, what’s my style? What am I doing here? Am I just a cover band? Am I just a one-man cover band? Have I got anything to say? I think that becomes, whether that’s I’ve got anything to say in songwriting, or my guitar style. Anything that’s unique to me. I think what you contribute to the society, the civilization that we’re in becomes very important. Later in life, or maybe I’m a slow learner, but certainly for me, the later in life it’s got, the more I think, “Yeah, what am I doing here?”

Charles:                                   Well, and it’s interesting, isn’t it? Because this question about what do I have to say? What am I bringing to society? To the environment which I live? Is actually a fundamental leadership question. When you move into positions of leadership, one of the things that I see people struggle with is how do they find their voice? What do they have to say? Somebody sent me a very interesting article, it’s about 25 years old, but it highlights the difference between leading and managing. I think a lot of people get confused about the fact that there is a separation. I think there’s a very big distinction between those two, and leaders need to have a voice, need to have a point of view, and a distinctive voice. The struggle to find that is, I think, is fundamental to the challenges of becoming a leader in the best interest sense of the word.

Jon Collins:                            Yeah, I agree with that. I think there are lots of different aspects of that. I think for me personally, there’s not a huge amount that I feel 100 percent about categorically this is the right thing to do. I trust my instinct a lot. That doesn’t mean I think this is absolute 100 percent correct. I think the challenges for me as a leader articulate in a vision. Then managing the process by which people follow that, even though I might not 100 percent believe that that’s right.

As of all the options that I’ve got, I think this is the best direction to take. You’d like to think you have a great strategy, you’ve got a strong point of view. Every one of these things you think you’re absolutely watertight, and I know it’s the right thing to do. If he followed me, everyone can follow me. Then it will be a huge success. That’s often not the case. That’s where self-doubt comes in, and loneliness comes in. All those things. You’re thinking, “Is this the right thing to do? I am putting a lot of energy in trying to convince a lot of people it’s the right thing to do, but it might not be.”

Charles:                                   Yeah, I think that it’s absolutely one of the great challenges in the leadership is is convincing yourself, and putting yourself in a position where, as you said, even if you’re not completely certain, that you have to take the lead. Because I think 95 percent of people, no empirical evidence for this, but my sense is, my experience is that 95 percent of people want to be led. They want to know there is a plan, we’re going somewhere. Even if they want to say, “I don’t believe in that, or I’m not sure about that.” What’s he talking about? They’d rather get behind somebody else’s vision.

Jon Collins:                            That’s absolutely right. Of course, I don’t hear all the criticism that’s pitched against me. I’m possibly been aware of some of it in the past, and I would rather be criticized for making the wrong decision, than people saying I just don’t know what a guy wants. I have no idea. Because sometimes it’s an easy out for people, but I also think you’re right. The people want a clear idea. People want clarity, and even if they don’t agree with it, I think they respect the fact that this is strong leadership. Actually, I think if you are a strong leader, you lead people along a certain path. If that path turned out to be the wrong one, then you can pivot and go in a different direction, and take them somewhere else. It’s not always a straight line to the top. The same thing is true. You explain why something didn’t work, assess a situation, and then change. That’s a sign of strength.

Charles:                                   I’m fascinated by the fact that music is your first connection to creativity, and it has played such an important part in your life, and it remains an important part of your life, and yet you have had a 30 year plus career in an extraordinarily, almost purely visual media. For those people that don’t know Frame Store has for years been one of the great visual effects companies of the world. There are very few feature films that have relied on visual effects that haven’t been touched in some way, in some significant way by Frame Store. The company created Gravity. What percentage would you say of Gravity was actually artificially created.

Jon Collins:                            [inaudible 00:12:55] 90 percent.

Charles:                                   Extraordinary, the work that the company has done. I know that we'll talk about this in a moment, that you have personally guided the advertising group into very, very powerful new places. It’s interesting to me, as you said, that for somebody [inaudible 00:13:11] music, it’s so powerful a part of their life that you found yourself in a visual media. Do you have a sense of why that happened that way?

Jon Collins:                            Probably because I wasn’t a good enough guitarist when I was a kid. I think, in order of priority, it would have been centerboard for Everton. Letting that dream fall away. Then being the fifth Beatle, and letting that one go. I think at that same time, the outpouring of creativity in my midteens included acting. I was doing a lot of acting as a kid. Also shooting films. Again, my father had standard eight cameras before super eight cameras. He didn’t do anything for that long, but he’d pick up one of these things and go, “Oh, this is great.” Then drop it. Then I’d see them around, or even after he'd left, they’d be around somewhere.

I picked them up and go with it. There was a time I was making my own standard eight and super eight films, and splice them together on a little cement editor. I thought I was going to be a director. I went to one of the first media courses in the UK. Came out with an honors degree in English and media. They had to validate the degree by having an academic subject with it. That was the early eighties. I came out of that thinking I would be a director. Went out to London seeking my fame and fortune. Then realizing I had nothing to give anyone particularly. With 12 tight written CVs, I went around [inaudible 00:14:53] handed them out, and eventually went to places that I knew people at the college that I’d been to were now working as runners, or assistants or something. I got a job as a runner. That was 31 years ago.

Charles:                                   I thought a runner was literally that. I think a lot of people in the industry, [inaudible 00:15:17] who aren’t familiar with that. Running really literally meant run out and get anything that anybody needs.

Jon Collins:                            Yeah, exactly. Coffee’s, and I built a great relationship with a lot of the Indian restaurants around [inaudible 00:15:30], and actually, to this day, although the one we went to, the Maroney just closed down after years. That’s how they knew me, because I used to be the guy who used to go out when we were doing, in the early days, at my first company, SVC, we did a lot of [inaudible 00:15:46] late videos, and George Michael’s videos. George Michael used to be in a lot of them, and he and I are the same age, or were the same age.

We got on fairly well together despite the disparity, and fame, and finances. I used to go out and get him stuff, and that’s what I used to do, just run about [inaudible 00:16:07]. Interestingly, the qualifications being a runner at MPC was that you had to have a car. Be able to drive and have a car. My best mate, Charlie, got a job at MPC because he had a car. I didn’t. I had to wait a little bit longer. Yeah, that’s what I used to do. As with all of these things, you post rationalized by saying, “Well, I was in apprenticeship, and you learned a lot.” Actually, I think that’s true.

Charles:                                   Yeah, I think that apprenticeship is one of those things. It seems to have fallen by the wayside for lots of different reasons. Just some question about whether gen Y and gen E are willing to go through those kinds of processes anymore. I talked to a lot of people who’s had this sense of incoming generations are, at best, anxious to get on with their careers, and so those kinds of jobs are not that interesting to them. They were invaluable, weren’t they, to really understand the craft, and the subtlety, and the nuance of what you were working in as you were working in?

Jon Collins:                            I think that’s absolutely right. Also, to really give you an appreciation of how difficult it was to get a certain amount of things done. Now, of course, as you were saying, this generation don’t find it that difficult, because a lot of things aren’t that difficult to do. A huge shift was the shift, certainly, and visual technology from analog to digital. When I started, we were working on what called one inch machines. Reel to reel video machine. [inaudible 00:17:37] lace up a one inch machine, which took a bit of practice, but we also had to understand power video theory. We had the little tweakers behind the ears, and we would go underneath the machine and sweep the pots for the subcarrier phase, and all that sort of stuff. Be reading on the oscilloscopes. It would be a really technical job, and of course once the digital technology came in, and that was only a handful of years after that, it was almost literally shoving in a cartridge which had digital tape and it, and pressing and playing record.

Charles:                                   Yeah, the world has changed completely.

Jon Collins:                            Now, even a tape, as we say hey, even tape is a redundant medium. Everything is done by streaming, and by recording to disc, or cards. All the formats that we thought were really cutting edge 20 years ago have all died away.

Charles:                                   Yeah, or 20 months ago in some cases. It sounds like you’ve always had a natural curiosity. You picked up music early on, you explored for video film from an early stage. How influential has that been in your career? The natural [inaudible 00:18:54] curiosity about how things work, and which is the right medium to express an idea?

Jon Collins:                            Yeah, and that’s a really good question. Actually, the honest answer is I always thought of it as not working. Anything like acting, or playing the guitar, or any form of a creative outlet, I just thought that was like playing. If anyone will let you do that, that was great. All the rest of it was harder work, and that just seemed like I could do it if I committed to doing it, but I didn’t feel like I had that passion for that amount of work. So I thought, “I won’t work. I’ll do all these fun things.” Actually, for a huge part of my career, I wouldn’t say it sustained over 30 years, but for a huge part of my career, I can remember thinking every single day is just fun. The ability to do this is fantastic. Even if that isn’t a pure creative output, getting coffees and sandwiches for people, probably not that creative, although I added some flair to it, a sense of panache. Nonetheless, it was really a creative industry or creative context. I just thought it was the best thing in the world.

Charles:                                   When did it start feeling like work?

Jon Collins:                            Probably about 10 years ago. Maybe a little bit more. Certainly around that 2008, 2009.

Charles:                                   You’ve been in the states how long?

Jon Collins:                            Now I’ve been over 13 years.

Charles:                                   You came over to [inaudible 00:20:39]?

Jon Collins:                            Yeah, yeah.

Charles:                                   Frame Store back then, it was London and LA, is that right?

Jon Collins:                            No, it was London.

Charles:                                   Just London?

Jon Collins:                            Frame Store, yeah, it was interesting, because I was running what was then thought was the commercial side of Frame Store in London. There was only London. Frame Store had an interesting history, because in the very early days, which predated me, it had a relationship with a company in Barcelona, and ended up having an association. Like an outpost of Frame Store which eventually it sold off completely to this other company. That, creatively, was quite an interesting thing. Then it went into a company called Meglomedia. Meglomedia took on the interests, controlling interests of Frame Store.

Meglomedia was made up of people like Norris Archie, Mick Jagger. Those sort of guys. That was only for a brief period of time, but they bought themselves out. When Frame Store bought themselves out of the group, they took out CFC as well, computer film company. CFC had LA and London. For a short amount of time, it had a office in LA. They subsequently closed down, and it was quite a painful process. Thereafter, the view was, we don’t really want to be in the US. Things are going well in London. It’s a bit of a pain dealing with companies that are 3000, 5000 miles away. It’s a long way away. It’s not our culture, etc. etc.

I reached the stage, independently, where I thought moving to New York was the right thing for the company and it was the right thing for me individually. With a little bit of resistance, I managed to persuade the rest of the board to give me a modest budget, and to set up in, well, I came over in late 2003. First year was a difficult year, but subsequent years have been just tremendous. It’s certainly the best profession thing I’ve done in coming across.

Charles:                                   What made you so certain that Frame Store needed to be in New York?

Jon Collins:                            Well, because we are quite an authentic company. I think we’re a very genuine, very honest, very hard-working company. Also a proud company, so when we go around the world saying, “Well, you know, we serve the world, and we have a global perspective, and all of these things.” It was increasingly feeling like the old Empire of England thinking, “Yeah, this is the center of the world really. Everything great happens here.” I, at the same time, was doing lots of forays to Chicago, and then New York from the mid-nineties. Try to encourage work back to London. With some success, in the early days, Korean being one of those successes. Then post 9/11, that dried up. As you’d expect. It shifted that focus from having a blend of US work coming through. I thought the only thing to do is commit to being in that space. It’s absolutely the right thing to do. I still feel that I am as much in love with New York as I was the day I got here. I can’t ever see that changing.

Charles:                                   I know you talked lately about facing a bit of internal resistance, but that was a very disruptive move for the company at that point. You really had to push the vision of, we need to be this kind of business, we need to be able to act in a different way. That notion of challenging what was a pretty established status quo was some people who had pretty set views about where the company was going. That must have been a difficult time to go through.

Jon Collins:                            Yes, exactly, it was. Coming back to my earlier point, this was one of those times I thought, “This is exactly the right thing to do.” I don’t know why I thought that, but I remember thinking, “I know this is right.”

Charles:                                   What were you most afraid of as you were having the conversations to convince people that, yeah, we need to do this?

Jon Collins:                            Well, I was most afraid of the fact that I might be right, but the rest of the world might think I’m wrong. Actually, it wouldn’t come across. Actually, in the first year, I had plenty of time to ruminate on that particular thought, because the phone wasn’t ringing. Actually, I think there was a very real chance that they would have pulled it. The solution was to double down and get other space. That asked for a commitment from them, which succeeded that the amount that they felt comfortable with. Again, I don’t think I put them in a comfortable space, I wasn’t in a comfortable space. The chairman who is giving me some support felt like I was putting him in a difficult position. All in all, at that point, it did become a little bit difficult. It worked.

Charles:                                   Do you think having made your position clear, so vividly, so publicly. Was that part of the drive to succeed? Let me put this a different way, once you had said it out loud, did that help you focus on the things you had to do in order to make this happen? Was it a statement of intent that drove you towards success [inaudible 00:26:20]? What I’m struck by is that when people don’t create the public acknowledgment of, yeah, this is a big thing, but we need to do it. When that's missing, we tend to find reasons to back off taking the steps that are necessary to create these kinds of [inaudible 00:26:37].

Jon Collins:                            Well, that’s true, and I know what you’re driving at. Here’s what I would say, when I had this realization, we were actually doing very well. Frame Store was doing very well. One of the reasons that the board didn’t really want me to do it wasn’t really that they had this fear of the US, although they had been burnt, that’s true, and so they weren’t that happy about the whole notion. It wasn’t so much that, it was that things were going well. Why would we disrupt that particular thing? As we know, the best time to make those changes is when you’re at the top. Not when you’ve slid down the other side and then you’re making change out of desperation. That really did feel like a time where I knew I had to make this change. It was going too well, and I had a team of people who were very capable of doing what they do, and actually, it was a bit boring. It was really, it left me without that many challenges.

We were winning awards, we were doing well, and it encouraged me, this is the right time to do this. It was still a risk. It was a risk insofar as even people internally were saying to me, “Well, don’t screw this up for us, because I mean America, have you seen all those spots? They’re terrible. This could really damage our reputation.” I thought, “Well, that’s a strange viewpoint to take, because I spent the last eight or nine years helping to actually create that reputation.” I did feel I knew what I was doing, and capable of doing it somewhere else. That worked out. I really felt like it wasn’t really a brave decision, because I didn’t really have a choice. I couldn’t sit there and carry on doing what I’d been doing, because it was just, it was mind numbingly boring.

Charles:                                   Well, that’s interesting, isn’t it? I think there are two sets of circumstances by which significant change happen. One is the one you just described where things are going well, we’ve reached a point of personal ennui where the things that we’re doing are no longer interesting and compelling. We need to shake it up ourselves. The circumstances allow us to have that point of view, and to act on that basis, and to push things through, because the alternative is just so unappealing to us.

Clearly, that sort of circumstances arrived in that particular moment. There’s another set of circumstances, which is obviously the time when things are going not well, or worse than not well, and you see on the horizon more of the same. Talk to us a little bit about what happened post 2008, 2009, and even later than that. The visual effects industry has changed so much in the last decade, you’re no better than I. Was it four years ago? Three or four years ago, Crashing Tiger, Hidden Dragon won for best special-effects the same day that the company that had made the film went out of business?

Jon Collins:                            Well, the same company, it was Life of Pi, but yeah. Absolutely right. Yes, a lot of changes. Even when you link it back to the initial move, I think, if you’re in a creative business, and you are authentic about what you do, then there is a time where you’d really have to assess whether what you’re doing allows people to be creative. You’re seen as a leader who’s capable of delivering work that no one else can do. As I say, I don’t think that comes from complacency. I think that comes through a lot of self reflection, and assessment of where you are. An understanding that we’ve all got ego. You might not be the right person, and we can all rationalize our position in one way or another and justify them, but if you are truly doing something creative, I think you have to take risks, and you have to be bold, and you have to keep challenging yourself. Those are all easy things to do, easy things to say rather, very difficult things to do.

Certainly, I think there are only a few people that I know in the industry who are constantly doing that. I don’t feel I’m constantly doing it, I think there are moments that I do it, and then the rest of the running the business becomes a reality, and then that is subsumed for a few months. Hopefully it is only a few months. Then you find another opportunity to really spark that ingenuity, creativity, etc. It doesn’t always happen. Some of it happens through circumstance, and certainly the economic crash did get a lot of people talking about how they’d behave differently, you should behave differently. I think we actively try to behave differently. The first thing that we did was set up a film unit in New York, which was great fun. We were doing some good projects and stuff. Ultimately, that didn’t work out.

We moved that team, or a large proportion of that team up to Montréal. At the same time, I understood that this was no longer a situation where we could say, “Okay, the things that [inaudible 00:32:09] 30 second spot is going to sustain us over the next 10 years or five years.” Because that writing was on the wall. I thought there was just too much talk. Generally speaking, there is too much talk about what people tell you they’re doing. Actually, when you look at the reality, it doesn’t match up. As I say, I believe we’re an authentic company, we’re a genuine company, so we do try a lot of these things. Particularly, over the last five years, I would say we’d made a very conscious decision, March 2012, to say, “Right, we’re going to do things in a much different way.” That’s lead us down also to different paths. Some haven’t worked out as well as we thought, others, it’s been extremely rewarding. We’re certainly a much different company than we were five years ago, and I’m delighted by it.

Charles:                                   What was the hardest thing you had to overcome to make that shift?

Jon Collins:                            The internal resistance I think. There were two things, but the hardest I think is saying to people, “Look, we’ve got a variety of skills that aren’t specific to doing work on a 30 second spot. To date, or for the last 20 odd years, this has been the best playground for us to show off what we can do. Because there’s a certain amount of budget, which people can sustain, which allows for a certain amount of expertise put against this thing, and time in crafting these great things. We’re not confined to it. Maybe we should open up and think about how we can use CG, comping, and then there’s the onset of coding, developers, etc.

What are the keys that we need that will unlock other doors into these fantasy worlds? That’s what we started gathering with real-time technology, leading to work like [inaudible 00:34:11] that we did for Wyden and Coca-Cola, which was a second screen event at the same time as the Super Bowl. That was matching the CG model. Not matching, it was putting a CG model in the gains machine. That then let us down the road to virtual reality. When Oculus was doing their kick starter campaign, we had a conversation with them. That ultimately became a project, one of the first major executions in VR for Game of Thrones that we did with [inaudible 00:34:44]. Using Oculus’s early STK1. That went down that line, and then that led to conversations with augmented reality companies. Then we do big experiential events.

Morgan Stanley’s building in Times Square’s covered with new screens. We used live data from Bloomberg to drive these graphics over the whole of the building. We got three installations down [inaudible 00:35:17], we’ve got another permanent installation for stock exchange. Now we’re involved in theme park rides that we’re doing for China and for America. Lots of different areas that five years ago we frankly would have said, “Look, we don’t really do this. We can help you with this bit of it, but maybe you want to speak to someone else.” Now, because the shift internally with the staff, everybody is excited by those opportunities.

Charles:                                   To your point, that is an enormous shift in five years. A shift in mentality and capability. You said that the biggest challenge was internal resistance.

Jon Collins:                            Yeah.

Charles:                                   How did you get people to overcome that? How did you help them to get past that?

Jon Collins:                            Well, really the easiest way was by holding up a mirror to what we were actually doing. I think, really, the success came through the consistency of lifting up a mirror and saying, “I’m not telling you what we could do, I’m showing you what we’re already doing. Actually, if we have the courage to own that area, we can do so much more of this.” It was a process of internal communications. William does a lot of staff presentations. Twice a year he goes around to all the different offices, and we make films.

We make two-minute films. He probably shows 30 plus of these films in the course of a presentation. It’s about showing, what we as a whole company, do. That’s quite impactful when we do those things. We’re constantly, or rather for the last four or five years, I’ve been constantly saying to people, “This isn’t about me saying, “If only we did this we could be this.” It’s about saying, “Look at what we do. We are this company. Just lift your head up.” Because everyone is so committed to the one project they’re on, it’s hard for them to take in such a breadth and diversity of work.

Charles:                                   Were you also transparent about what the traditional visual effects business was looking like from a financial standpoint?

Jon Collins:                            Absolutely. Again, I think everyone has a security in what they know. There is a conceit that exists within our industry, which is like, “Okay, well, this is the way it’s always worked, from client, to agency, to production company, to a set of vendors. There’s enough for everyone. If it’s getting a little bit thin, then you just shake the tree, and more trickles down.” That might have worked for an amount of time, although the benefit of being in the industry for 30 odd years is seeing all of these cycles and thinking, yeah, they're cycles, but they don’t actually go back around to where they were. It’s a constantly diminishing return that you get. Even in the nineties, I remember a lot of people complaining about no time, no money. That’s never been any different, it’s just that there’s even less time and even less money now. A greater expectation. What was the question?

Charles:                                   I was going to say, I’m struck by the fact that visual effects companies, Frame Store obviously being no exception, are really complex organizational structures. You’ve got multiple disciplines. I don’t think most people who haven’t worked inside one understand how many different kinds of disciplines are actually involved in all the different work you do. Those disciplines can often be spread across multiple offices. You’ve got geography, you’ve got different technology. You’ve got to find, how do I take a piece of media created in this format and use it, work it over here? You got workflow design issues.

Taking a company that was as successful as yours was in one very specific medium, visual effects, and taking it in real time while maintaining a financial flow, and a financial validity to the business, and shifting it into a company doing all of these things over the last five years, how did you go about doing that? Because I’m struck. When you look at traditional advertising agencies for instance who are still struggling, in many ways, with this notion of taking a much smaller number of disciplines and making them work in fundamentally different ways. How were you able to do that? Because somebody described it as, we’re rebuilding a 747 at 35,000 feet in flight. There is a lot of that to it, right?

Jon Collins:                            There’s a lot of that to it, yeah. That’s the first time I’ve heard that one, but I feel like I’m driving a Formula One car and trying to change the front tire at the same time. Anyone who is not an idiot would pull into the pit, and there’s just no time to do that. Yeah, I do feel a bit of that. I certainly had a few years of that, I would say, about four or five years ago. I think that the difference now is that we built a culture, and we’ve sustained that culture, and the culture is about, again, it’s not about delivering work for a Hollywood movie, and it’s not about working for a 30 second spot, it’s about building teams of people who are capable of doing remarkable work. My responsibility, and I always feel, that I feel this very, very strongly is that I need to be able to open up those channels to allow people to create in the best way to the fullest potential.

I don’t think that happens very often, because I think, in general, companies across our industry. Because I think you get into a rut of doing a certain kind of work, and then justifying it by entering lots of things into awards, and getting an occasional award, and going, “Oh, look how great we are.” Actually, you look at it and go, “It’s not that great.” We’ve got to really be honest about ourselves as an industry. About what we’re creating, and not just awarding people because they’re known and they’ve got a reputation, or a cool brand, or whatever it is, but actually looking at the craft of the work and saying, “Is that really good? Is it really creative? Is it courageous? Is it risk-taking? Does it say something new?” All of these things that used to apply. Now, it’s less about that.

The irony is, everyone can achieve a certain level. It’s not as difficult as it used to be to get 80 percent of the way there. Getting to that last 10, 20 percent that turns something from okay to great takes a lot of expertise, experience, time, money, etc. It’s that air, it’s that last 10 percent. That’s what I think frame store excels in. That particular area.

Charles:                                   Were you conscious in making that transition of going back to look at the company’s values, and using those as a reference point, or a set of guidelines by which you make decisions about the things you should be doing and the things you shouldn’t? You talked about culturally you’ve got, so was that part of your leadership stance if you will?

Jon Collins:                            It was. Of course, you’ll remember, you were a part of that in helping us even ask those questions in the first place. Yeah, very much it was. I think we started a lot of strategic initiatives. As I said earlier, not all of them were successful. I think what it does do is it changes your mindset about who you are and what you’re trying to achieve. I always think any of those shakeups, any of that change doesn’t necessarily achieve the one thing or the set of things that you expect it to, but other things happen. That’s exactly what happened. I think where we can lack in strategy at times, we overcompensate in our ability to make the best of those opportunities.

Charles:                                   Yeah, I’m struck by a couple of things actually in talking to you. One is just, from a personal [inaudible 00:43:23] standpoint, your openness to try new things, to see new possibilities on a very personal way it strikes me as a really important foundation for you as you’ve developed your own leadership style. The company seems to reflect that. The fact that you talked earlier on about we’ve tried a bunch of things, some have worked, some doesn’t. I’m not saying you’re blasé about that, but you seem very accepting of the fact that’s the way it’s going to have to be. We can’t be perfectly predictive in terms of what’s going to work.

Jon Collins:                            Right, and there are number of ways of doing it. I think what we’re seeing, if you look at VR particularly, there was the first wave of pioneers who were bold enough to go out and explore, and push, and challenge. Try to write a new set of rules for the first medium. Then what happens with those sort of things is everyone else crams in and jumps on the bandwagon and says, “Oh, well, we do that too.” The effect that that had was that there was a downward trend in the quality of VR. That was largely because everyone was muscling in and saying, “Well, you don’t have to do it for 500,000, we could do it for 80,000.”

Then you have this dip, this arc of disappointment that follows that first, initial wave of excitement. You just have to go through that period where you consistently say, “Right, but we operate in that 10 percent. We believe that we create value.” This is true in all those areas. In every area that we work, the traditional areas, the nontraditional areas, I want to be best in class. I want to be genuinely saying, not selling this story to someone saying, “Sure, we’re great at doing all these things.”

If it’s Frame Store, it needs to be world-class. If that’s where we operate in those areas, and as I say, sometimes the circumstances just aren’t right for us to get involved in that sort of thing, but in all of those new areas, like the rides, VR, AR, real-time technology, the experiential work doing. Even now getting back into the television work that we jettisoned 10 years ago, we’re now doing that because it’s attracting A-list talent, A-list directors. Budgets have now come back up. And all of those areas, we believe we’re world-class. I don’t really want to be in one of those areas if we’re not.

Charles:                                   So you walk away from something if you think we can’t be the best in the world at this?

Jon Collins:                            Yeah.

Charles:                                   Yeah, really strong. What now? Where does the company go from here? Where do you go from here?

Jon Collins:                            Well, I wish I could tell you. Again, I think strategically, I learned a lot of my managerial skills from football as you know. This is really a case, I think, yeah, we’ve certainly got goals and aims, I’ll take one game at a time. I think we’re in a really exciting phase. I think we’ve already started this next phase, whatever that is. I don’t know whether it’s three years, five years. I don’t know really what it involves. Certainly now I wouldn’t have a clue of what we'll be doing in five years, but that’s the exciting part. The unknown, the risk-taking, the pushing in areas and building teams that can always deliver at that world-class quality. That’s the exciting bit. Because I know whatever it is in five years, I know I’ve got the people that can take me there. It’s not me doing it, it’s them.

Charles:                                   It’s classic in the classic way [inaudible 00:47:12]. You’re not skating to where the puck is, your skating to where the puck is going. Whatever that may be.

Jon Collins:                            Yeah, that’s absolutely correct. I think the thing that really excites me now is I think, we probably got over 1000 people working in lots of different offices, but I think they all now have that mindset. Whereas, five years ago, most of them say, “Listen, we do visual effects for films, we do these things for commercials. That’s really what we do. The rest are a bit of a sideshow.” Now I think people realize that they can fulfill themselves in lots of different areas. The percentage of revenue that we draw strictly from traditional commercial advertising is probably 20 percent of what Frame Store [inaudible 00:48:01] across the board.

Charles:                                   I have three takeaways from this, and I’m curious to see whether these resonate for you. One is, having a vision is really important about the kind of company you want to be. In your case, it’s, we want to be a company built around excellence that is flexible enough to take on whatever the future provides us. Two is, a willingness to be experimental. To try different stuff, and to see what happens. Then the third I think is to set your own standards very high, and only allow yourself to get into areas that you can think you can be excellent. Is that fair?

Jon Collins:                            That’s absolutely fair. It sounds easy when you put it like that. It’s been a journey to get there. Even a journey individually to be able to understand that with that amount of clarity. That’s absolutely right. I am at a stage where I think if I am in the way of Frame Store, it’s more important for me to go and someone else come in and take that on. Because this thing isn’t about me. What I do feel is that I never developed a signature style of playing the guitar like Chuck Berry, or Clampton, or BB King, or [inaudible 00:49:09], but the closest I’ve got is in taking Frame Store down this journey. The work that we’re creating, in a sense, I feel is partly due to my signature style. Now, that might be completely fantastical, but I feel very connected to that. I also feel like I have a responsibility to the company to provide those opportunities. If I can’t, then I have to move on. Other people have to take it forward.

Charles:                                   Yeah, that really resonates with me. When we built our [inaudible 00:49:44] the White House, we got to the end of that journey for us, and felt very much as though we had given birth to something and brought it to a point of maturity where it was capable of taking care of itself essentially. That was a big moment of separation, a big moment of realization. What I would also say now, unbelievably, 12 years later, that’s staggering to know that's 12 years have gone by, it’s a journey that happens after that. When you start to, as you were saying earlier, lean into figuring out what your voice is, who you are, what else you're capable of is also extraordinary. I thank you very much for joining me today. I wish you nothing but enormous success on the rest of the journey, and we’ll see you along the way.

Jon Collins:                            Fantastic. Thanks, Charles.

Charles:                                  That wraps up this episode of Fearless. Join us next time as we delve further into the art and science of leading some of the world’s most disruptive businesses, and unlocking the power of creativity to change ourselves and the world. Thanks for joining us.

Show Notes

[1:25] What’s Jon’s first memory of creativity?

[7:15] When you move into a leadership position, ‘What am I doing here,’ becomes more and more relevant to how you show up to your team.

[11:50] Jon transitioned from wanting to be a musician to being a film director.

[15:25] Apprenticeship has slowly fallen by the wayside with this current generation, but it is a vital part of understanding the industry you want to break into.

[22:55] Jon did experience a bit of internal resistance when he wanted to transition the company from London to New York.

[28:25] If you’re in a creative business, there will be times where you have to review whether you even allow your team to be creative in the environment you’ve created. It’s a tough balance between taking risks and following through on the standards you’ve set out to deliver.

[31:05] In the last five years, Jon and his team have made a conscious decision to try new things and break out from the norm. Some of these decisions worked, and others did not.

[34:35] The biggest challenge for Jon was internal company resistance. How did Jon overcome this?

[40:10] It’s not as difficult to break new barriers in our modern world, but turning something from okay to great takes a lot of expertise, and that requires a focused team.

[41:20] Shake ups within the company are good, because it helps you change your mindset and redefine what your main objective is.

[45:25] What’s next for Jon and Framestore?

[46:35] Charles does a quick recap on what he’s learned from Jon.