10 years (1)

And so, unexpectedly, Mark Leaver Consulting is 10. At the very beginning a neighbour, a highly clubbable international consultant, described the key to self-employment as to “keep moving the cliff”. I thought rather a bleak view at the time…

What it does is overstate the key disadvantage – that of certainty – and ignores the major advantages of a change in work profile and lifestyle which delivers huge possibilities and opportunities and flexibility and stimulation.

A couple of recent conversations prompted me to think about what I’d learned, the techniques for sustained consultancy. Some generalisations below (admittedly slightly contradictory in places):

10 lessons (apart from “keep moving the cliff”)

Value your relationships – Work comes from commissions, invites, conversations, recommendations not generally cold tenders or applications. Stay in touch with people, cultivate your connections.

Never disappear – When very busy, but also particularly when not, it can be easy to disappear – don’t. Be seen, go to launches and openings and meet ups, you have to engineer serendipity, put yourself in the way of opportunity.

Find your anchors – If everything is fluid then it can be beneficial to find some points of consistency. If you can nurture an ongoing base level contract then do, it can underpin your income. Similarly find a place to work where you can drop in to a “social” environment or hotdesk.

Value your freedom – There is a huge upside in the ability to define your own work model and time management, you only have to justify your actions to yourself (enjoy your ability to bunk off once in a while). And in defiance of logic I have found it can feel “safer” to have multiple clients rather than one employer.

Hide your stress – There is an inherent level of stress, from lack of future visibility of work to fluctuating cashflows. It’s just part of the territory, it comes and goes – and people are not generally sympathetic.

Be available, but be sensible – Always be available, but balance that against unnecessary travelling, meetings are often how people fill time so use other tools. Always be on top of things, especially if you are working across multiple time zones, but remember you have to switch off sometimes – you will forget this lesson often.

Be professional – Sounds obvious but turn up, be on time, be prepared, know the detail, know why you are there / what you are contributing – you are your own brand. I ignored this once in 2012 and I’m still irritated with myself.

Stretch – Say no to things that are boring and yes to things that are scary. Part of the joy is being able to embrace new challenges, and in developing new skills and profile open new avenues of work – the ability to change and evolve and choose is the point.

Generate your own platform – A job comes with a clever title and validated platform to build profile from. But as a consultant you need to define your own coherent and credible area of expertise – simply understandable to others, and defined enough to afford a position of thought leadership

Identify the win moments – You are often in a position of providing external advice (for an invoice) with no ongoing stake in the beginning or end of a project. It’s important to recognise the moments, even just for your own benefit, where input generated positive impact. Even better, find side projects where you are invested in development from concept to completion.

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Three new initiatives to start the year in Bristol.

Channel 4 – Channel 4 officially launched its Creative Hub in the city last night (15th Jan). Looking back it was early 2017 when I first met DCMS at the beginning of the process to put Bristol forward as an out-of-London location. The benefit to Bristol is twofold, both the presence of the broadcaster within the city’s ecosystem and also the validation of the city as a significant media hub, already attracting new companies.

Creative Workforce for the Future – Part of the narrative of the C4 pitch was a strong desire to improve diversity and inclusion within the media sector. I co-authored a skills development programme, also launched yesterday, Creative Workforce for the Future. This initiative looks to both generate pathways for underrepresented groups into the industry, and crucially also to improve HR and recruitment practice for the participating businesses – seeking to generate a sustained positive impact on company behaviours in the West of England.

Creative Scale Up – Creative businesses often struggle to access traditional business support and investment. Creative Scale Up (also linked to similar initiatives in West Midlands and Manchester) aims to take a series of cohorts of companies, all at a particular inflection point of growth and expansion, through a multi-layered programme of assistance. For Watershed I’ll be facilitating a peer-to-peer network, allowing the participants to learn from the experiences and insights of others who have encountered similar issues and opportunities.

The media sector in Bristol is currently booming, particularly in natural history / wildlife / environmental content (e.g. BBC just announced 150 more jobs at NHU), and the interventions above by national, regional and local government are positive exemplars of strategic policy in support of that growth. I’m delighted to have been part of defining both the opportunity and the public sector response (and nice to have some projects closer to home too).

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Slush again. Disappointingly not as cold as usual in Helsinki, felt wrong somehow.

The show retains its idiosyncrasies – indoor waterfall area anyone? – and it is always interesting to see what the tech trends are across the show. Looking back to last year’s blog a couple of key themes seem to have consolidated – lot’s of personal healthcare and very specific AI applications which seek to add an optimisation layer to existing practices, in data processing or logistics for example.

Less immersive technology visible at Slush itself but in focused side events hosted by DIT and the Helsinki XR Centre an echo of an observation from the Los Angeles trip (below). VR/AR products presented were dominated by enterprise training and brand/marketing activations, rather than creative content.

The other notable was the next wave of VR conferencing – but as someone who travels constantly and will always seek to meet virtually where possible, I just can’t see how these avatar driven iterations improve on available (fast improving) video tools. Maybe just me….

And finally a disappointing change to note. In the US Brexit was rarely mentioned, it was a commercial risk factor worth noting but with the market strength and devalued £ mitigating. In Europe however people have now stopped engaging in trying to understand the detail, just stepped back to regard our politics as “absurd entertainment” (unfortunately a direct quote).

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Los Angeles

Across a sparkling visit to Los Angeles I met with the innovation leads of three major studios and a number of interesting digital production services businesses.

What was striking was the significant strategic focus on the use of real time rendering techniques as a major production step change in the next 1 to 3 years. The ability to use games engine tools to generate CGI assets and effects in the words of one studio “moves the focus of decision making back to the heart of the production process rather than concentrated at the end in post”.

The creation of highly flexible production worlds at high quality generates massive efficiencies, with extended additional opportunities to reuse these assets in multiple secondary environments, for example next generation mixed reality uses or games.

Whilst I’ve discussed these techniques with others, the level of attention and investment was really notable.

Also of note was that not one conversation across the week was about VR as home entertainment. Where immersive tech did come up it was primarily a location based format – there has been a clear shift of energies.

In that vein I was delighted to experience the Bride of Frankenstein Holoride at Universal Pictures. I was part of brokering the collaboration between Universal, Holoride and Rewind – and the combination of a VR experience locked to the movement of a real vehicle driving around the site was both interesting and effective. Clearly this innovation was a first step in a future vision of entertainment in autonomous vehicles with “elastic” content delivered over 5G connectivity.

Jet lag means always seeing the sun rise – there are worse things….

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To Frankfurt for Me Convention, “a ‘future lab’ for exploring major issues and promising ideas for society, business, science and our planet.”

Within the convention SxSW produces a “start up cities” strand with a focus on places where there is something interesting happening, they share my belief that innovation clusters away from the capital city often have the most dynamism.

Bristol was approached to be the UK representative (other cities included Atlanta, Bangkok, Brussels, Fukuoka, Tampere, St Petersburg, Rotterdam) and in keeping with the theming of the main event I focused on values, culture and collaborative innovation, rather than solely on accelerators or investment.

The wider programme roamed widely from architecture to process design, healthcare to environmentalism. In that last aspect in particular there was an interesting tension played out between those advocating radical disruptive change immediately, and those taking a more pragmatic and persuasive incremental approach.

The convention being part of Frankfurt Motor Show only highlighted this tension. As protestors sought to disrupt, the car companies tried to highlight that all of the new models shown were electric. An industry at a clear and challenging inflection point.

(Interestingly there was almost zero presence of autonomous vehicle technologies, the thousands of men (all men) attending unlikely to be the audience… Plus it always feels to me like a Silicon Valley solution looking for a problem solved elsewhere by public transport systems, let’s hope the associated innovation has secondary uses).

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Framing Immersion / Italy

As detailed below the Framing Immersion report I recently authored – a collection of personal testimonies exploring the challenges and opportunities in creating immersive experiences in an emerging market – is now published.

Download here: SWCTN Framing Immersion report

And planning forward travel before disappearing into an Italian summer break, Sept to Dec will see Frankfurt, Los Angeles / Las Vegas, maybe Porto, definitely Helsinki.

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Framing Immersion / Madrid

Over the past couple of months I have been putting together a report capturing the current developments in immersive tech based on the insight of the producers who are the architects of this new form.

Framing Immersion is a collection of personal testimonies on the evolution of an emerging market – an exploration of the challenges and opportunities in creating immersive experiences in a landscape where all parts of the value chain are still evolving at speed, whether production, distribution, audience engagement, business models or even the fundamental grammar of the form.

I’ve grouped the stories under three headings which represent emergent forms of value, the underlying animating context for this exploration of immersive technologies:

Visual – the capacity for immersive technologies to reveal things you could not see previously, and the implications of that function
Commercial – the viability of generating an underpinning business model, and the challenges of balancing growth, scale and innovation
Impact – the opportunity for immersion to achieve affective impact, how relationships with audiences are being changed by new modes of interaction

The report will be published to coincide with the SW Creative Technology Network Showcase, 12th July in Bristol.

Last week I travelled to Madrid to present at the XR Festival, created by Telefonica and British Council, and talk to some of the key Spanish companies in immersive tech.

What was striking were the similarities in conversations in Madrid when compared to the UK research. There is a consistent struggle with current commercial realities and tech limitations, but also matched with a clear vision of positive future potential and an openness to share and collaborate in order to move the development of the whole market forward faster for everyone.

(Haven’t added too many views from my hotel room like the above recently, but just passed 150…)

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Bristol / Cardiff / Porto

Channel 4 has now announced the location for its Bristol Creative Hub in the centre of the city (https://www.channel4.com/press/news/channel-4-chooses-bristols-finzels-reach-home-its-new-creative-hub). It will be interesting to see how this accelerates an already shifting geographic focal point for the media industries in Bristol.

The announcement coincided with the Creative Cities Conference in Cardiff, an event focused on the growth of the television industry outside of London. What was interesting is how the dialogue has changed in recent years, from a dynamic of moving production to the “Nations & Regions” to fulfil quotas, to a much more positive position of the realisation that a diversity of voices and views creates much better television; reflecting an authenticity of people and place on screen drives audience engagement and uncovers previously ignored talent.

Alex Mahon, Channel 4’s CEO, reflected this eloquently in her speech at the event, presenting the C4 restructure as not an obligation or economic engineering, but as a strategic necessity for a forward thinking media business.

And a meeting in Porto echoed this dynamic from a Portuguese perspective, with Porto as the location with integrity and potential challenging Lisbon’s dominant narrative.

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Cold in Stockholm, so retreating to the Pickled Herring pub within the British Embassy as the venue for a presentation on UK creativity / technology seemed like a good option.

Whilst not a big city there is a clear sense that a full ecosystem from start up to major corporate is well established in Stockholm, attracting VC funding and creating a tangible energy and growth.

I met a range of companies, from content production services to B2C marketplaces to immersive tech, with a strong thread of online / social marketing. All very serious businesses with clear forward strategies and investment secured.

By definition their growth requires international expansion at an early stage to find a scale market, so the businesses feel very highly networked and expansive – with London previously the first location of choice due to its multinational global hub profile (c.f. Spotify).

And here the opportunity cost of Brexit becomes clear (as opposed to the actual jobs and legal foundations which are actively being moved out of UK). No matter how I articulate the underlying economic fundamentals, confidence in the UK political infrastructure has evaporated, and decisions to use the UK as a global base are now not being taken.

And whilst these stories may have been told to me in a pub, they were articulated by credible people with high growth potential – now looking elsewhere…

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To the British Embassy in Paris, for a collaboration between Department for International Trade and French TV industry event Série Series (http://www.serieseries.fr/en/prog_hors-murs.php).

The day event highlighted British excellence in television production – with a focus on drama series – and attracted an audience of 150+ French producers, distributors, broadcasters and other industry representatives.

I chaired a panel taking the agenda on a slightly forward looking tangent focusing on storytelling within immersive environments, and the significant R&D support invested in innovation under the Creative Sector deal.

Limina Immersive installed their VR Theatre in the truly spectacular Salon Pauline showing Immersive City Bristol, a curated programme of work by Bristol creatives.

The headline speaker was Jed Mercurio, writer of Bodyguard and Line of Duty. In discussing Bodyguard he made a fascinating distinction between plausibility, possibility and probability and how he balances the three when planning plot elements.

Everyone was too polite to dwell on Brexit, but where discussed it was in the now usual perplexed and slightly mournful tone. Europeans are used to consensus politics and so find the catastrophic failure of our entire political class, stuck in adversity whilst we threaten to crash our own economy, baffling. Possible? Probable? Plausible? Discuss.

A panel on UK / Franco collaboration made a slightly tongue in cheek comparison of British as “passive aggressive”, and French, “aggressive aggressive”. Not entirely true but the lines of bristling riot police at the end of the street where I was staying ahead of another gilets jaunes march resonated….

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