Unframing Content: Fearlessly Frank Meets Hugo Ward, Executive Producer at Economist Films

Richard Wallace

Fearlessly Frank is running a series of quarterly salons with innovators to understand how they are Unframing their industry’s traditional approach to their respective disciplines.

Our inaugural speaker was the Executive Producer at Economist films, Hugo Ward. We sat down with him, alongside Fearlessly Frank Co-Founder Wayne Guthrie, to hear how he was helping The Economist Unframe the way it approached content.

Why was Economist Films set up in the first place?

HW: The Film Unit was set up to reach a wider audience. We identified over 70 million globally curious people around the English-speaking world that could be Economist subscribers but weren’t. Half of those have never heard of The Economist and the other half think that The Economist is all about the markets and finance.

So how do you reach them?  You reach them on the channels that they’re using, whether that’s through print, audio or film. We knew our editorial stance would translate perfectly to film, which would help us tell our stories in a different, but equally powerful way, to print.

What are the guiding principles of Economist Films?

HW:  The Economist has been a publishing brand for 175 years.  But now it’s a global media brand. We see Economist Films as a kind of 175-year-old start up.  We’re lucky that we’ve got the brand, we’ve got our core values, and we know our tone of voice, but we still had to determine what a film unit in such an old and global brand as The Economist looks like.

When I was making current affairs for Channel 4 Dispatches or Unreported World, as the Producer or Director you’d be very much in charge of driving the narratives.  With the Economist there is an editorial line on absolutely everything.

Whether it’s male fertility, electric cars or saving the oceans, there will be an editorial line on it and we all speak with one voice. So, we are very much guided by our core principles and that’s what we try to put into our films.

How have you unframed your approach to film making in your move from traditional television to online?

HW: When creating traditional documentaries for television, there was limited feedback, whereas online you get instant analytics and data. So, we are guided first by our editorial line, but secondly by what the analytics are saying. So, that influences our programme making, from the subjects and formats to film titles and the thumbnails that accompany them.

In conventional TV, we just thought we knew best. Now, we can adapt our film making to our audience. It’s about putting our audience at the heart of what we do, rather than just broadcasting at them.

How does Economist Films work with brands?

We have a number of very successful commercial partnerships, such as with Thomson Reuters, EY and Santander. Brands partner with us for two reasons: first, to enjoy the “halo effect” of one of the most credible global brands. Secondly to tap into our reach—The Economist is the fourth largest publisher across social media.

But The Economist will always retain its editorial independence. This is sacrosanct. It goes to the core of who we are and the standards we’ve always upheld.

We’re also in development with ideas for Netflix and with Amazon.  A lot of our content is already available on platforms like Amazon Fire and Apple TV. Commercial partnerships always need to be navigated very sensitively because we are one of the most trusted news brands in the world.

Reputation takes a long time to build, in our case 175 years, and it can be dashed very, very quickly.  So, if we lose a big commercial partnership because we don’t think it’s in the interest of our trusted brand, then so be it.

What can brands learn from The Economist in how it approaches content online?

WG:   The 175-years-startup positioning is really powerful because, yes, The Economist is reacting to its audience, but it’s not looking to have its content defined by the audience – it’s made a decision to do that itself.  That’s what people are looking for now, more than ever, because so much of the digital world is reacting, in the moment, to the whims of the audience.

You only have to look in YouTube comments to see how, half the time, they’re unthoughtful reactions to things people are seeing in the moment.  Which is why it is so important and refreshing when you encounter content that is deliberate, that has a tone of voice, that is informed by a belief like The Economist. And when you encounter that online, it sticks out a mile.

Can any brand become a publisher online?

HW: When a brand understands its role within society, from that comes its opportunity to create content.  So, content and communication are two very different things.

So, at the heart of that lies a decision, which is, “What is our role in society?” And before any brand produces any content, it needs to ask itself, “What role do we have in society and people’s lives and what benefit is our content going to have for people?”

So as long as brands know who they are and what they stand for but also know the role they play in people lives, then they can produce really good content that has value.  If they’re seeing it as an opportunity to just advertise for free, or advertise cheaper or advertise in a new way, then I think that they are barking up the wrong tree.

WG: Interestingly if you get that right, you solve your communication problem in the process because suddenly you have something valuable and worthwhile to talk about. You have a right to speak and you have something to speak about.  So, it’s like composing a piece of music.  It has to play in tune but a lot of brands struggle with that because they’re so programmed to a way of behaving which is all about communication.

What has your experience been with working with new technologies to help The Economist tell stories better?

HW:  We are never necessarily early adopters, we’re cautious adopters. The difficulty is with anything that is tech driven is that the technology drives it! When we did our first experiments with VR, techies ran the VR houses in London at that time. They weren’t filmmakers.  So, we were making a film with the people who were leaders in their field, but they’d never made a film before.  They weren’t storytellers.

Three years ago, the biggest challenge was that people were jumping on it without thinking about what it really offered them and what it was adding to their content.

We’re working on AR too but we’re absolutely against doing it for the sake of it just because people are talking about it.

Is there also a danger of brands wanting to unthinkingly jump onboard the latest hyped technology?

WG:  It’s a constant challenge. There is a natural, human, inclination to want to grab on to the new thing and use it, to ride that wave of excitement.  When you add an element of potential commercial gain it can spin out of control.

HW: So, what we find ourselves doing a lot of time is taking people on a journey which is, essentially, one of active restraint.  It’s pushing the pause button. I think cautious adoption is a really interesting philosophy potentially for a lot of businesses.