10 Lessons from the Frontlines with Jay Bennet and Ted Biggs of Shaftesbury Smokebomb

By Julian Humphreys ● July 26, 2016 16:20

One of Canada’s most successful content producers, Shaftesbury has created popular movies and TV series for the past 28 years like Murdoch Mysteries, The ListenerHoudini Doyle and Slasher

In 2008, they brought many of their brands online through their digital arm, Smokebomb. Since then, they have researched and incorporated diverse new technologies and formats, each with their own challenges and opportunities, into their products.

Jay Bennet and Ted Biggs oversee creative and convergent technology at Shaftesbury/Smokebomb. On July 16, they sat down with CFC MediaLab’s IDEABOOST and Network Connect members to share what they’ve learned working with innovative media production in Canada, especially as it relates to technology startups.

Lesson #1: Be niche

When they designed the Youtube show Carmilla, Shaftesbury/Smokebomb's mantra was to “make a show for 2000 people.” It now has over 50 million views. Focusing on a niche allowed them to reach a specific audience that LOVES the show. Because when people love your show, others will get interested and start watching it, too.

Lesson #2: Research your audience before designing your entertainment experience

Carmilla is designed for 16 to 23-year-old women. The producers at Shaftesbury/Smokebomb aren’t in that demographic, so they had to do extensive research on their audience first.

Lesson #3: Build a sustainable business

In the past, Shaftesbury/Smokebomb developed products for a particular project with input from advertisers, broadcasters, funders and more. But that’s a lot of cooks in the kitchen, which resulted in unsatisfying compromises – what they described as a "slalom" to satisfy multiple stakeholders. As a result, they’re now moving toward a model where they develop their own products independent of third-party input, and then offer those products to third parties to use.

Lesson #4: Be open to where the content takes you

Since Carmilla became a hit show there have been lots of unexpected revenue opportunities. T-shirts, a jewelry line and live events have bolstered the brand and increased the bottom line, with additional revenue opportunities still being explored.

Lesson #5: Own your IP

Branded content is big at Shaftesbury/Smokebomb, but they insist on owning intellectual property, too. The real value to the brand is exposure and data, not spinoff products or merchandise. 


Lesson #6: Gather data

Certain audiences, like the 16 to 23 year-old women who watch Carmilla, are a mystery to advertisers. The more data you gather, the more value you can bring to advertisers.

Lesson #7: Use research to build partnerships

Shaftesbury/Smokebomb developed an app to get young viewers moving while watching the TV show Moblees. The app led to a 21 per cent uptick in viewer activity. In turn, that led to partnerships with leading hospitals, hospitals that wanted to create content experiences that led to specific health outcomes. Currently, for example, Shaftesbury/Smokebomb are working on an adaptive game system that stimulates neurosynaptic functioning.

Lesson #8: Know your limits

Although Shaftesbury/Smokebomb increasingly incorporates wearable tech into their products, they know their limits. Their strength is manufacturing ideas, not physical products. As a result, manufacturer partners do the manufacturing work.

Lesson #9: Experiment together

Shaftesbury/Smokebomb is always looking for new and innovative technology to support their content, but partnering with entrepreneurs has not always been easy. Some entrepreneurs create barriers to experimentation that limit the potential for partnership. Bennett and Biggs recommend that tech entrepreneurs work with content producers collaboratively, putting financial concerns aside until all possibilities for partnership have been explored.

Lesson #10: Master the pitch

The Shaftesbury/Smokebomb team have both heard and made a lot of pitches. They know what works and what doesn’t: knowledge gleaned the hard way. For them, a good pitch identifies the following:

a) A clear problem or need

b) A defined target market

c) An achievable business plan

d) A roadmap for rollout

e) A complete team (without holes)

f) A clear sense of why the funder is right for you at this time

g) The right balance of passion and facts

h) Tested ideas

If you can include all that, you’re golden. 

Thanks to Jay Bennet and Ted Biggs for sharing their work and insights, and to photographer Aida de Silva for capturing our IDEABOOST Network Connect event at Workhaus.Thanks also to Shaftesbury/Smokebomb, our Program Partners who hosted this Speaker Series. We appreciate the contributions and commitment made by our founding partner Corus Entertainment. IDEABOOST is supported in part by the Federal Economic Development Agency for Southern Ontario.

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