Evolving: Q&A with Evolve Mentor Tim McSweeney

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Interview by Simon Bland 

As Christmas edges closer, we quiz Creative Enterprise Evolve cohort mentor Tim McSweeney about his creative industry insights – and he rewards us with a sleigh load of valuable tips… 

 

What big changes have you seen impact the creative industries in recent years? 

There are three common threads in the creative industries that I see across all industries where technology has become an enabler. Firstly, there’s the shift to digital. Every company is now tech-enabled. This has only been accelerated during the pandemic when we all relied on networks and platforms to continue living our daily lives. This digital shift goes hand-in-hand with ubiquitous technology. We’re all surrounded by rectangles of various sizes – from those on our wrist to the largest screens – and we don’t like it when they’re dark.   

Digital technology enables new business models, mainly focused on services – and with all these screens surrounding us, the creative industries and the content/IP they create is more in demand than ever. This reveals itself in many ways – from supporting new revenue models like subscription services, competitive advantage by developing/refreshing IP, feeding into social networks for user marketing/engagement, to developing new forms of media to delight consumers.  

Secondly, new models bring new entrants that change a traditional landscape. Change creates opportunity and attracts those who don’t care about the old way of doing things. Amazon switched from selling books and destroying retail to producing original content and Netflix is now providing games. Just as AirBnB and Uber have redefined hotels and taxis, we’re starting to redefine what constitutes a creative company. New creative ventures are abandoning the established notion of what it was to be a small creative company and are actively seeking to become creative enterprises.   

The final parallel is the direct engagement between brand and individual and the actionable data that brings to drive dialogue. Individual creators have the tools to create content and the channels to create direct relationships with fans across the globe. Here lies a wealth of data for creators to better understand their biggest fans.  

 

How do these changes impact those outside of the creative industries? 

The creative industries have always been a ‘feeder’ sector, empowering others – but with sector lines blurring, they’re becoming more of a partner in solutions as opposed to a supplier. On a micro level, where would technology and digital adoption be without the work of the user interface and user-experience designers? A minor observation, both Microsoft and Apple started as UI and UX companies – and arguably still are.  

When it comes to widening the scale, tools pioneered by gaming companies are now impacting how we simulate external environments for architects and engineers and our inner-worlds for medicine. Content producers working with telecommunications companies are leveraging the capabilities of new network infrastructure, and mental health professionals are using AR/VR to support those in their care. Meanwhile, e-gaming and ‘gamification’ is impacting both new sports and existing sports rights-holders – just watch any Formula E race 

However I feel the most discounted value of the creative industries – and maybe the most impactful – is that it inspires us all to invent the future. How many scientists and technologists grew up watching films or TV shows that inspired them to create the future? How many young people are enthralled by productions like Blue Planet that plant the seeds for them to address both current and future challenges? The problem is – and I understand that this is an investment and commercial focused newsletter – how do you place an ROI on that? 

 

What’s the most exciting creative industry innovation that you’ve seen recently? 

That’s a tough question. It’s hard to pick one specific thing… You have companies creating new ways to produce content for less money; virtual production facilities and techniques that allow studios to take commercial risks. Alongside this, you have companies that are using machine learning and artificial intelligence to help content creators create – or even co-create. 

There’s a company that has modelled the way people hear to provide a more realistic spatial audio experience; think mono to stereo for the new generation of portable audio. Then there are the companies that are building platforms that allow them to directly engage with niche but valuable communities, like comedy and horror. There are also companies enhancing the existing creative industries infrastructure – like partnering with cinemas to help them open new revenue streams – and these are just companies I’ve come across via Creative Enterprise.  

However, what most people don’t realise is that innovation is never the tech – technology is a tool. The most important innovation is the shifting of the commercial mindsets of creative founders – both existing and new. They’re starting to let go of preconceived notions of what they are expected to be as a creative industries company and are realising that they have the ability to define what it will be in the next 3-5-10 years. They’re starting to think; how do I scale this model? How do I monetize my IP via other ways? How do I move this from a creative industries company, to a creative enterprise? 

 

Where do you see the creative industries going – what’s exciting you about the future? 

I’m terrible at predictions! I like to think in phrases like ‘now’, ‘next’ and ‘later’, to hedge my bet – but I’ll preface it with this: I have three children under the age of 13. They don’t really know what radio is or broadcast TV. They’re annoyed when they can’t find a film to watch when they want to watch it and when we can’t bring content with us. This is the expectation of the future.  

Now, new service and revenue models are emerging and gaining acceptance, while infrastructure is getting ready for new technologies like 5G. More interactive media is having an influence on traditional outlets, including gaming and augmented reality – and creative founders are open to new areas of commercial innovation.  

Next, I think we’ll see the seamless delivery of media, television, phones, glasses, holograms. It doesn’t matter how and where we engage with content – new creative tools will make the creative act easier while machine learning and AI will support creative content tailored to individuals. All this will be happening while human/computer automated co-creation simmers away in the background.  

Later on, it’s likely that truly digital natives will run the land – and who knows what we’ll see? There will surely be a meta or an omniverse – but I’m still waiting on the flying cars promised in the 1950s.  

 

What do creative industry innovators need to know when starting their business? 

Everyone hears ‘business’ and starts overcomplicating things without really understanding the simple foundational principles: it starts with the story. What’s the ambition for the company? What does the business do? Why should anyone care?  

This is a question that’s really difficult for founders – within any industry – to answer. There’s a feeling of exposure that if they open up and say they want to build the next Pixar, Rockstar Games or Unreal Engine, they’ll be ridiculed. However, founders are literally lying to themselves if they don’t identify the scale of what they want to achieve. Not just for themselves but for their employees, investors and the partners they’ll need along the way. There’s no right or wrong answer – it’s up to the founder. However, being honest with goals means you can move your business forward with an intent commensurate to the scale of your ambition. 

Secondly, what does the business do? I’ve found that most founders in the creative industries are fantastic at crafting a story – as long as it isn’t one about their own venture. Creative companies exist to monetize IP, so be clear on how the business does this. For example: Who are the customers? What does the business actually sell? Where do you sit in the value chain? What’s the compelling story that will make others invest into the business – not only with capital but with their time, effort, revenue and partnerships. 

The two questions above lead us to the last question: Why should anyone care? When I speak to many creative entrepreneurs, I’m reminded of a nature documentary where a dozen chicks sit in a nest chirping for their mother. Everyone basically does the same thing and everyone is going after the same people to pay for it. Everyone is trying to be like everyone else, only better – so it’s no wonder that the same money goes back to the people that have been proven to deliver. Be different. Understand why you’re different. Understand your place in the market and understand why you – and why now?