Renece Brewster is one of many leaders in the industry steering her company through an unpredictable year. In conversation with Mumbrella, she discussed the power of "over" communicating and reflected on how the company has adapted resources, taken care of teams, and found ways to support clients during COVID-19. The original article was posted by Mumbrella on this link
Renece Brewster discusses the challenges of hair-care, home-schooling, and running one of Australia’s most successful video marketing agencies during a pandemic with a reassuring warmth that makes you wish you could break quarantine and go grab a drink with her. The ineffable chill, though, is somewhat of a ruse.
Throughout her career, Renece has been at the forefront of emerging digital technologies – from her somewhat premature leap into mobile websites (“six months before the iPhone launched” she admits) to the massively successful Youtube-inspired video content hub Visual Domain. At Visual Domain she oversees a team of one hundred creatives in the creation of video content for hundreds of blue-chip clients Australia wide.
The notion for Visual Domain came about in 2008. Brewster’s business partner Daniel Goldstein was working as a television producer. Brewster was a digital marketer. They joined the dots. “We realised the content he was creating for television had a growing audience online,” says Brewster, “we wanted to see if we could make that an accessible medium for clients.” In 2008 most Australian businesses filed a comprehensive video strategy in the “expensive” and “hard” categories. Visual Domain convinced them otherwise. The company launched during the GFC, which saw them initially specialise in real estate videos with modest budgets and tight turnaround.
Their success in that enterprise eventually convinced larger, mainstream organizations that video could be an accessible and lucrative channel. Twelve years on, that accessibility remains Visual Domain’s modus operandi. “We position ourselves as our client’s partner in production- working with a team of 100 creatives, from producers, animators, shooters, editors, and copywriters and making everything from how-tos to documentaries and induction animations.” Visual Domain prides itself on working with clients to identify pain points and tailor communications to their budgets and needs, no matter what.
Video content needs have changed somewhat since 2008. Visual Domain’s business model has been transformed by the explosion of social media as a preferred medium for advertisers. Now large companies need slick video content across multiple channels. While Renece used to work on a single hero video for a campaign, now for each project, there are likely to be different versions across Facebook, Instagram, web, and Youtube – each targeting specific demographics. Clients from industries as varied as finance, recruitment, education, and sport have been lining up for tailored messaging. In 2019 alone, Visual Domain worked with over 650 different clients.
Needless to say, 2020 has been a very different year. How does a video production company keep generating content in the era of COVID-19? As it turns out, not without some effort. Keeping up with 300 videos per week has meant going “back to the stone age”, in Brewster’s words, with hard drives delivered to home-offices across Australia. And while Visual Domain is still filming some productions, producers and teams are operating with strict social distancing and hygiene measures in place – lapel mics have been swapped for booms. Unsurprisingly Brewster has seen a change in demand for certain products. “Brands still have messaging requirements, but there’s been a shift – now there is a big focus around internal communications with teams and remote onboarding – we’re creating lots of how-tos and short bits of information.” Animated content has also become a major growth area, with the obvious benefits of not requiring a production team. Meanwhile, external comms favors brevity and key messaging over storytelling. “The longevity of any message our clients are putting out right now is so short,” explains Brewster, “because our days and weeks have become so long and the context is shifting so rapidly.” Clients have even been providing footage from their iPhones, something Brewster would have eschewed previously but has become part of the new “rough and ready” COVID-19 aesthetic.
This type of adaptability is part of Visual Domain’s core offering. “Getting our start during the GFC making real estate videos was actually great training for the current situation,” says Brewster. “We were making professional productions with fairly heavy, circa-2008 equipment. We would get 24 hours’ notice, and because of the scale we needed to make it affordable – the average cost was something like $500.00. And we would coordinate hundreds of those a week.” Ever since Visual Domain has prided itself on being able to provide a solution for any budget and any circumstance.
Indeed, with flexibility “business as usual”, the greater challenge has been internal. Finding ways to support teams dealing with separation anxiety, and clients struggling with their messaging during an unprecedented crisis have become priority for Brewster. “We’re fortunate to have a really strong workplace culture at Visual Domain – our teams socialize together outside of work, and the office is really our creative hub” reflects Brewster, “isolation has been full-on for everyone – especially creative teams who are used to being able to bounce ideas off one another in the office.” Brewster believes it’s important colleagues continue to connect outside of work. Visual Domain has implemented everything from fitness initiatives, trivia nights, and an extremely competitive hot-cross bun bake-off to mitigate the often surreal and transactional feelings that come with remote work. And then there have been the implications of COVID-19 facing leaders in every business. “Like all businesses, we’ve had to make changes,” says Brewster, “some of our clients have been seriously impacted, and that has had a flow-on effect for us with some types of work slowing down.”
Brewster’s approach to the HR challenges of running a business during COVID 19 has been transparency. “My number one priority since the outset has been total transparency to the point of over-communication,” she says. “We saw it with #toiletpapergate at the outset of the pandemic – people are feeling a lack of control, there’s a huge sense of anxiety around the unknown, and I don’t want work to contribute to that. I put out a daily comms email with an update on the broader business and everything I know – even if I don’t know everything. You don’t want people sitting at home, alone, and wondering.”
Along with the challenges, there’s also been room for hope and innovation – from finding new ways to service clients to flexing the capacity of existing technology systems. Renece sits on the board of a not-for-profit Girls in Tech, an organisation that hosts events throughout the year. Their flagship event was due in May, full of workshops, networking, speakers, and other activities unconscionable under COVID-19. “Visual Domain has a live stream platform that we have historically used for webinars,” says Brewster, “we picked apart the event for the qualities that made it truly unique and converted it. The process of adapting the technology we already had to sustain something completely different was so rewarding.”
Similarly, Visual Domain has been able to adapt their resources to give back to the industry. The company has produced a free video that any business can use as a template. “It’s just to get the message out that ‘we’re open and we care’. There is some broad messaging that could apply to many businesses and then they have the option of customising colours or logo.” Brewster recognizes that for many of Visual Domain’s clients advertising during a pandemic can feel overwhelming, and not just for budgetary reasons. Faced with the pressures of agreeing on a message and story when businesses are already under such operational strain, marketing managers can start to view up to date comms as a “nice to have” rather than an essential. There is a risk that Australian businesses will go quiet during this time and suffer. “We want to encourage businesses to keep talking to consumers,” says Brewster, “now is not the time to be shy. So with this initiative, we just wanted to take some of the pain out and put the power back in their hands.”
For Brewster, this has been part of Visual Domain’s DNA since the early GFC days – making things easy when times are tough. “Right now it’s about recognising ‘we’re all in the shit together,” says Brewster, with typical frankness, “we need to focus on keeping the goodwill flowing and keep the lights on so we’re ready to come out on the other side.”