Our partners over at TechCityInsider were lucky enough to snag an interview with Pulse Films co-founder Thomas Benski, who started his iconic cross-platform production company just seven short years ago.
TECHCITYINSIDER100: Starting a cross-platform production company from scratch at the age of 25 may seem like a daunting prospect. But, for Pulse Films co-founder Thomas Benski his naivety actually proved to be an asset.
Faced with a content industry in a rapid state of digital evolution, not being weighed down by years of precedence and opinions on how things ‘should’ be done enabled Benski and Pulse, to adapt to a changing landscape much quicker than some of their rivals. “We’ve really created a different way of thinking and that’s what I’m most proud about,” Benski says.
“I set up the company seven years ago with digital conversion at the core of it and I think that is what set us aside from traditional content companies. I saw conversion being a reality that I think was ignored by the traditional video businesses, and I saw a strategic and creative opportunity creating a company that blurred those boundaries a lot more in terms of talent, distribution and technology.
“There was a naivety on my part, but a lot of it seemed like common sense. I just thought ‘this makes more sense.’ The big challenge for us was the definitions that were set in the business, the way people like to pigeonhole you.”
So, without wishing to pigeonhole, what do Pulse Films actually do from their base on Hanbury Street E1? Well, it’s part ad agency, part music video producer, part television production company – and it works across all platforms simultaneously.
Ad work includes the latest O2 effort featuring Emeli Sandé and an interactive online feature for watchmaker Diesel that calculates the amount of days you have left to live. Music video work for Ed Sheeran, Example and The Vaccines stands out from the slate on that side of the business. And on the TV side, Channel 4 broadcast its one-off doc with David Attenborough and Bjork, The Nature of Music last year. It’s perhaps best known for its feature-length music documentaries – of which more later.
Benski says the diversity comes from a desire to be driven by the target audience, rather than a preconceived idea about what the company is and should be doing.
“What dictates us is not the output it’s the audience,” he explains. “We are an 18-to-30 content company and 18-to-30-year-old people watch music videos, watch music films, watch television, watch adverts and buy products, so that’s our focus.
“What is it we do more? It depends; sometimes we’re doing more television, another time we’re doing more music. The quality needs to be excellent across the board rather than having to compromise in one or two areas.”
The speed of digital and technological advances have played right into Pulse’s hands, giving it direct access to the audience that influences its every move.
“We get feedback much quicker, we are able to sustain longer term relationships with the audience, we can bring the audience with you across the different projects,” says Benski.
“In digital the other thing that has changed is the attitude of people. I was in Silicon Valley two weeks ago and what’s amazing is you go into some of these places now and leading figures in our industry are extremely humble, open and curious to understand. Too often production has been very arrogant – ‘we make this and we are the best’ – now they’re curious to hear what we say and how we can use their product.”
The company is coming to the end of its first phase of development. The last seven years have been spent building up a diverse staff of 50 permanent positions, supplemented by a clutch of freelancers depending on workload and projects. US offices were opened in LA and New York in May last year.
The focus has so far been on building foundations and reputation. “We’ve been working on making a sustainable business out of it,” Benski says. “It’s very easy to say it’s all about conversion and being good at different things, it’s very different to proving it and showing it on paper and having case studies that win awards.”
“Phase one was about creating this environment, phase two is where we create landmark projects, that’s the big focus now we have the foundations,” says Benski.
The US move was “common sense” and further expansion is being eyed in France and Brazil where Benski was born.
He says a global perspective for a company such as Pulse was logical, but they wanted to wait until the business was strong enough to support a big push on foreign shores. The success of 3D film Katy Perry: Part of Me and Shut Up and Play The Hits, a film about LCD Soundsystem’s last-ever gig gave it that strength.
“For me the important thing on the international expansion is we are one company,” Benski says. “I see other production companies that have very distinctive cultures in different countries but for us it’s absolutely the opposite. We spend a lot of time bringing people here and showing how the hires fit in; it’s one team, all the incentives are non geographical, it’s important to blur the boundaries.”
Benski rates the LCD project as one of his favourite so far. Band frontman James Murphy made the decision to disband at the peak of the group’s popularity, finishing with a performance at Madison Square Garden in April 2011. Shut Up and Play The Hits was produced by Pulse along with directing duo Dylan Southern and Will Lovelace at thirtytwo. It was part of the official selection for Sundance 2012 and the inaugural Sundance London event at the O2.
“We were able to challenge how film is financed, how distribution was done, bring some money, integrate brands into it and sell it in a global way,” Benski says.
Looking ahead, Pulse sees great potential in the branded entertainment space, and is targeting the World Cup in Brazil in 2014 as an opportunity to further its ambitions there. Benski cites Red Bull – with its work in both music and extreme sports – as a prime example of how to crack the genre.
“With branded entertainment you can’t just expect to do one thing and then it goes off like an advert,” he cautions. “If a drinks brand wants to come into music it’s about what their spot is in music, where they can occupy and how they can sustain it. Red Bull Music Academy has been going for 12 years now; it started small and built. You look back and there is real heritage as opposed to other brands that suddenly decide ‘kids like music so lets’ get into music.’ It’s about having a clear strategy to sustain.”
Already turning a profit for his private equity investors, which as of last year includes film producer Sharon Harel who paid £2.3m (US$3.7m) for a 20% stake, Benski could well have his finger on the pulse again with that one.
Thomas Benski – CV
Co-founder, Pulse Films
Head of production, NV Films
Producer, Addiction, London and New York.