Q&A with 90 Seconds founder Tim Norton: 12 months ago agencies wouldn’t work with us, now we’re growing 10% every month

90 Seconds90 Seconds, a six year-old company that has been called the Airbnb of the video production world, has a network of 5,000 creatives, has produced 10,000 videos in 22 languages, and shot in 87 countries. Six months ago, the company received a sizeable funding injection from Sequoia.

In this Q&A with Mumbrella Asia’s editor Robin Hicks, founder Tim Norton talks about mistakes brands are making in online video, why ads don’t work on the internet, and tackling the perception that cloud video production means low quality.

First, explain the name. Why 90 Seconds? 

In the very beginning, we started off making lots of short form videos. The name popped out of a pressure cooker situation really, when we noticed that [90 seconds] was a good time frame to get the message across for an online audience. We realised that people don’t want ads and they don’t want giant stories. They want a story they can watch from beginning to end.

Ads are there to grab your attention, and quickly give you a message when you’ve got someone captive. But when you’re online you want to watch something entertaining. You want a story not an ad, and you don’t want a long story.

We thought that 90 seconds was probably in that sweet spot. But that wasn’t based on research. It was based on our own experience. Although Google has published data that shows that 90 seconds works well in terms of watch rates.

In 2010, when we started, online videos tended to be six to 10 minutes long. Us pushing 90 seconds was pretty groundbreaking at the time. Now things are getting shorter by the day as gifs and 15-second Instagram videos become more popular.

Tim Norton (left) with 90 Seconds Singapore boss Nick Erskine-Shaw

Tim Norton (left) with 90 Seconds Singapore boss Nick Erskine-Shaw

We recently spoke to legendary French adman Jacques Séguéla, the S in Euro RSCG, who suggested that the future of advertising is the two-second spot. Do you think that’s a bit far fetched? His point that people’s attention spans are shrinking, so the shorter the better…

If you think about scrolling through a news feed of a social network, particularly Facebook, you’ve probably got at best two seconds to stop someone from scrolling. That’s why the much shorter formats are emerging. But there’s only so much you can say in two seconds, so that format is not going to take over, but we’ll certainly see more shorter form content.

The length of the video depends very much on where you’re going to put it, and the audience you’re engaging with, so the length for Facebook and YouTube for instance will be different.

So how is your business going, particularly here in Singapore?

We’re growing very quickly in this market. There’s a big need for local content for Singapore, and there’s a number of regional head offices here that require shooting in other markets. It’s really important for these guys to keep creating localised content, because gone are the days of creating one piece in English and jamming into local markets and trying to make it work, particularly for large major brands.

The 90 Seconds team in Singapore

The 90 Seconds team in Singapore

Only three months ago a long-standing production company Two Oceans closed in Singapore, which shows that business is tough for traditional players. What do you make of that?

A business like ours is a disruptive model. If you’re doing production in the traditional way, you’re going to find the market tough. We’ve spent six years building a business that was designed for an environment that we’re now seeing. As a result we’re growing by 10% month on month. We’ve tripled in the last 12 months in Singapore and Southeast Asia.

The business is changing at every level. The sort of content people want to watch is changing. They want it super fast, high quality, at a lower price point and in a way that’s easy to manage, which is leading people to want to have a cloud solution. If you haven’t got the business on the cloud, it’s tough to deliver on those requirements.

Trends such as the shortening of the video format, the move to distributed content, the shift of consumption to online video and the move of ad spend from TV to online video are not driven by 90 Seconds. That’s the macro environment right now and we positioned ourselves for what is now coming to fruition. We got in early. Two to three years ago the market wasn’t quite there.

We recently raised funding from Sequoia. It was a huge injection [$7.5m] for a company like ours. We’re using that to build up the creator network, and build coverage across the region. We’ve done that as other [traditional] players have felt pressure.

Agencies weren’t buying from us even 12 months ago. They saw us as a competitive threat, and didn’t think we could meet their quality requirements [to browse 90 Seconds work, click here]. Now, we’re producing TVCs for a company like Sony, which are to run in five countries, delivering in two weeks. Then we’ll produce five online videos off the back of that too. The whole thing is being done our platform. Think about how disruptive that is.

Case study of how 90 Seconds delivered a campaign for Uber shooting in eight countries in 12 days.

Agencies don’t want to miss out on that. Clients are asking them for online video, and before they simply couldn’t deliver it. It wasn’t profitable. Now they can.

10% month-on-month growth is impressive. Where exactly is that growth coming from? You mentioned working more with ad agencies…

Video production Asia Google search

Google search for ‘video production Asia’

It’s coming from everywhere. Our online growth channel went up 20% in the last month alone – people are searching online for solutions like 90 Seconds, and we’re ranking very highly.

Is that coming from organic searches, or are you running ads to draw in more customers from Google searches?

We do some paid search, but our marketing spend is still very low. Of last month’s sales, 70% came from organic search and 30% from paid. We’re six years on from launch, and just two years since launching in Singapore, so we’re starting to get the ranking that we’re aiming towards.

We are working with big brands with HQs in Singapore who want to service the region, such as PayPal, Ernst & Young and Rip Curl. The enterprise channel is going well, but it’s the agency channel that is really starting to deliver now.

How will the funding from Sequoia be spent in Asia?

The first thing that we’re doing is improving the product – we want it to be the best in the world. Three months ago, post-funding, we started working on the product so that in Asia it’s got internationalisation and localisation deeply baked into it. So we’re introducing more languages to the site. Soon the site will be speaking to creatives and clients in Bahasa [Indonesian] and Mandarin.

The second thing is getting coverage. Until now it’s been pretty organic; getting people to sign up and then deliver to demand. That’s what you do when you’re not funded. You do exactly what you have to do and nothing else. With funding, we’re building up a supply growth team to get creatives in markets where we want to launch in.

We want to be the undisputed number one across Asia. We know that Asia is not one entity. It’s many different countries. And US companies don’t necessarily recognise that. They see it as one big region; stick someone in Singapore and they’re good to take on Asia.

We have physical office openings coming up in other markets in Asia, such as Hong Kong, Kuala Lumpur, Bangkok and probably Jakarta.

What sort of skill sets are you looking for in the people you want to hire?

They’re called “success managers”, that’s their primary role to make projects work. They’re the right people to ensure quality and activate the right creatives for the task at hand. These are usually people who have come out of agencies or TV production. So for talent at companies feeling the strain, we’re an opportunity for them to come into a new model.

What are clients asking you for in Asia?

The biggest driver is multiple location shooting. For example a client with regional headquarters in Singapore with offices in 12 countries in Asia that wants to shoot in all of those markets. They don’t want to transcreate global content, they want to go one step further and shoot locally and produce locally. That’s the number one driver for demand.

It’s a complex problem to solve, and there’s a huge cost saving to be made. The kind of question we get asked is: ‘We’re trying to produce 20 videos for 10 countries over the next four weeks, the content is going on our YouTube channel, we haven’t got a huge media spend, but we want the best content out there. We’re told it can’t be done.’ The thing is, it can be done.

To what extent can you bring down the cost of a traditional production budget?

The question depends on the complexity that’s built in. With our model, we can literally plug and play as many creators that are needed. We filmed a TVC recently in New Zealand recently and there were 40-50 creator contracts going out on one project. Just managing that complexity, and understanding the transparency and the workflow… we’re only charging for the productive hours of those contractors. There are no built-in agency fees, no travel costs, no down time. We’re using local people on local contracts rather than flying people in from Singapore or Hong Kong.

The cost is reduced by at least a third to start with, if not more. The average purchase going through the platform is US$5000; an average of 1.6 videos and 1.8 shoots.

What about quality control? Sometimes you need the best directors. Sometimes clients will insist on the best wherever they’re based. How are you guys working to ensure the quality of the end product is up to scratch?

If you look at the technology, it’s not just a piece of software, there’s a huge amount of data too. A big question with a creative project is, is everyone on the same page? On 90 Seconds, they are literally on the same page. You can see who’s involved, the shoot, the script, etc. As a creative director it’s empowering, as you can work with lots of talented people across multiple locations. Otherwise you’d be flying around in person meeting people, and the platform fundamentally solves that problem. That drives overall quality.

As for using a network of freelancers, it’s not as if these people are just odd-job creatives who’ll do the occasional project for somebody. We pay close attention to quality control; 9.2/10 is our quality rating.

When it comes to activating a creator, there’s a little bit more to it than say Uber, where you can get a driver on the road straight away. We need highly skilled guys who have the equipment and the profile to do a job well. If you’re a good operator, you’ll be a perfect fit. If you’re not, you’ll fall off very very quickly.

We also use a ratings system, and we know how long it took to go from plan to shoot, the edit and the gap between shooting and uploading the footage. All of those things that make projects more complex and slower, that drive down quality, we can flag with data.

What are the biggest mistakes brands are making at the moment in video production in Asia?

One thing is that there can be overscripting and a lot of investment in getting it perfect. But in an online world, you really only need to release small chunks of money, get it out and get it published, get it in front of an audience, and let the audience speak. You can spend $20,000 on five videos spaced over a few months, and by tweaking and tuning the content over time you might be able to find your voice online.

People don’t want a polished TVC online. They will see it as just an ad and won’t watch it. You can sit around and strategise for a long time about a TV ad, which you need to do as you’ll spend $1m on production, and a lot more on distribution.

If you release a video online and it’s not that good and nobody watches it, you don’t have to worry about the impact on your brand – because nobody’s seen it. If you get a video watched, and think that it’s not perfect for our brand, well it’s just succeeded online and you shouldn’t underestimate the power of that. You have to learn how to produce content that people watch and share, and you do that partly by seeing how people respond to it.

In Japan, the approach to creativity is not to throw an unpolished piece of work online and see if it works. So in that sense do you think the 90 Seconds model isn’t for everyone?

Fair call. We’ve got a strong business in Japan, and we have 12 staff there. Japan contributes about 20% of 90 Seconds’ revenue. But in Japan it is very noticeable that the delivery time is 60% higher than anywhere else. We try to make the 90 Seconds offering homogenous around the world as far as we can. But in Japan, there is a lot of importance placed on meeting with people, and there’s more time spent iterating the work, so there’s always a higher cost of delivery there. We don’t mind supporting that sort of production process, but we do encourage experimenting and getting content out there.


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