‘If your first instinct when trying to experiment is writing an application to get some money then you’re probably making it harder for yourself than it needs to be’
Matt Locke is the Director of Storythings, a company established to experiment with new ways of telling stories whose portfolio of projects includes UNeditions, supported through the Digital R&D Fund in collaboration with Unlimited Theatre and the University of Dundee.
Native: Storythings came out of the annual conference you run called The Story. What led you to found the event and eventually the company?
Matt Locke: We’re living in a golden age where there has never been more ways to tell, listen to, engage with and react to stories – it’s a Cambrian explosion of platforms and behaviours and such an exciting time. Exploring these opportunities was central to the 10 years I spent in broadcasting first with the BBC and then Channel 4. And as a commissioner I was spending a lot of time at events and conferences, where I found that digital was framed either as a bizarre shiny thing that no one understood or as this horrible threat that was going to kill everyone’s jobs. I therefore wanted to have a conference and a conversation where we didn’t talk about technology in that way but instead focused more on what it feels like to tell stories. After two years of The Story, I left Channel 4 because I wanted to learn different perspectives and explore how other industries beyond broadcasting were responding to these changes. Calling the company Storythings was very simple because I wanted to help people tell stories and I wanted to make things. And the fact that the domain name was available also helped.
Storythings doesn’t define itself in any particular way, is that deliberate?
Absolutely. While we do have a background in digital we enjoy a very broad range of work. People come to us because they have story problems – they know they want to tell a story and reach an audience but they might not know the most effective way of doing that. That means we can work with everyone from Penguin to WWF to Channel 4 to Unlimited Theatre to Google Creative Labs. That diversity is really important to us because it means we’re less prone to the volatilities of digital spending in a particular industry. You can get a lot of work very quickly if you hyper-specialise as a company but if the market changes you can be left high and dry. We are still discovering what it is we actually do and what our core products and services are. That is entirely deliberate since I believe it is more sustainable to grow a company slowly over 5-10 years than it is to grow it very quickly over 2-3 years.
‘The talent-oriented model of working is well established in film, TV and music videos but when it comes to digital unfortunately the market doesn’t work like that’
How does Storythings operate as a company?
We are essentially a network with a very small centre which takes freelance specialists on a project by project basis. A lot of the best technical talent we work with have done their time in agencies and now want to work more like a film director or artist where you’re hired for a specific project. In time I’d like Storythings to grow into a studio representing and helping to build the careers of excellent digital talent, giving people the kind of opportunities to help them grow and build their skills and reputations. We currently share offices with Pulse Films – who at their heart are a company that develops talent in film-making and I don’t think there are equivalent companies doing that in digital development. When you hire someone from Pulse for a music video you’re hiring a name, a known aesthetic – that’s just not the case for digital right now. People come to you with a job and they don’t really care who the talent it, they just have something they want built. The talent-oriented model of working is well established in film, TV and music videos but when it comes to digital unfortunately the market doesn’t work like that. But it will in time.
You work with a lot of people, so what makes a good project partner?
There are still a lot of people who say they want to do something digital but they don’t know what their goals are, or why digital is important to their audiences. Most of the people we work with are genuinely curious about how their audiences are behaving, and how digital networks are changing this behaviour. If they have that curiosity, have something they’re really passionate about, and are prepared to learn a lot about how their audiences are behaving on digital platforms, then that is the basis of a great client, and will lead to really interesting work. We’re now also increasingly interested in starting projects in conversation with actual users so we can test our assumptions right from the start. This practice of ‘co-design’ is something we learnt a lot about from our Digital R&D Funded project (UNeditions with Unlimited Theatre). UNeditions is an example of a new way of working for us, where the results are products or platforms rather than just stand-alone projects. Today you really need to run a project live as part of the design process, so you can really understand how people are using it, and whether it works. Too many clients still want to pay you to build a one-off project and then don’t have a budget to continue iterating and learning about audience behaviour after launch.
‘Find the shortest possible route for the great creative talent in your organisation to experiment with the ideas that they have. If you can only do that then you will do amazing things by default’
Your website lists four key insights as fundamental to your work which and they all about human behaviour rather than technology. Do you think that sometimes we can get too hung up on the technology rather than the way it’s changing what we do and how we do it?
Absolutely. Our focus on people and their behaviour is based on lessons learnt from ten years of trying to convince people working in broadcasting that the internet was going to be an interesting place to tell stories. Just talking about particular technologies and platforms got in the way of people understanding the underlying changes in audience behaviour. Since most people in different industries don’t share the same language and vocabulary around technology, that blocks their understanding of the creative opportunities developing out of new audience behaviour changes. What’s more, technology is changing so quickly that it’s just an endless game trying to keep up. I spent a lot of time at the BBC and Channel 4 trying to use words, metaphors and language that was about audiences’ behaviours and patterns of attention, so that we could be consistent about what we were trying to do, even if the technologies were changing really quickly. The behaviours do change but they change over longer time scales than the technology. Therefore if the language you use is still all about technology and platforms, then you’re always going to be focused more on short-term changes than long-term issues. But if you look beyond that to the core human concepts of attention and storytelling then you’re going to be able to build strategies and products that last much longer that the platform popular at any one time.
What is your response when people say that they’d love to do more digital experimentation but they don’t have the time or the money to do so?
When people talk about the lack of time and money to experiment with digital channels it is often people are seeing it as a separate thing. That’s based on the wrong belief that the audience that finds your work through digital networks is somehow different to the audience that come through your other channels. That’s just not true, there is no boundary any more, and you should think about digital as an integral part of what you do – as one of your core channels. If you want to try experiments to explore the opportunities of new audience behaviours on digital networks, challenge yourself to find ways to experiment with those technologies which are low cost or low time. What can you do for £10 a day? If time is your issue, what can you do for an hour a week? If your first instinct when trying to experiment is writing an application to get some money then you’re probably making it harder for yourself than it needs to be. You can try things out incredibly quickly and incredibly cheaply using free and open tools. You don’t have to make them all in public and you don’t have to show everyone, but there’s no reason you can’t spend an hour a week experimenting with new platforms, trying to tell the stories that your arts organisation is trying to tell in new ways. It shouldn’t require a bid to the Arts Council every time you want to experiment, it should be something that becomes part of your culture and your practice.
Your working style is very collaborative and you use the principles of co-design, prototyping and iteration. There are however many arts organisations who aren’t used to working in that way when it comes to digital.
It is still often the case that many people approach something digital in the same way they approach a capital build project – getting a lot of funding upfront, setting up a lot of requirements, nailing every potential problem down before you start building and then once you’ve built it never touching it again for another five years. We have to understand that you can be fast and iterative and that there is more to digital than the website build that has probably been your main experience to date. You can be fast, you can be playful, you can muck around, get things wrong and fail quickly. And you can work in such a way as to not commit to large expense until you’re really sure that the investment is worth it. The approach where you create a giant 6 month Gantt chart when you want to do something digital is a fundamentally old way of thinking about things we really need to get beyond.
If you had the attention of everyone running arts organisations in the UK, what would be your message to them?
Find the shortest possible route for the great creative talent in your organisation to experiment with the ideas that they have. If you can only do that then you will do amazing things by default. As a manager it should not be your job to decide what the great innovations are, your job should be to clear as much space as possible for everyone in your organisation to do that for themselves. You will have some astonishing talent working for you right now who are really good at telling stories in new ways. Your digital strategy should not therefore be finding one big project, but identifying those people and finding how to let them experiment and play, creating the spaces to let them develop projects quickly and learn from them very fast. The Story started as a crazy side project at a time when I had a full time job as a commissioner and two young babies. All of best things I’ve done in my career started as crazy side projects. Make space for them.
You trained at the GSA in the early 1990s. How influential was that time in your current work?
I went up to Glasgow in 1990 (when it was European City of Culture) and it was the best place I could have studied. The explosion of talent in Glasgow happened at the same time as the Young British Artists but unlike London, Glasgow didn’t have a big commercial gallery infrastructure. But it did have a highly fluid system with incredible networks, and the space and permission for people to experiment and do what they wanted to do. I often say that a lot of my career has been trying to create spaces that feel how Glasgow felt in the early 1990s.
You can follow @storythings on Twitter, find out more about their work at storythings.com and find out more about their Digital R&D Fund project at UNeditions.com. Image from The Story in 2014 courtesy and (c) Kitty Wong.