Alumni Profile: Photographer and Digital Innovator David Bastedo
By Carol Neshevich ● August 22, 2017 14:00
Fans of The Tragically Hip undoubtedly know David Bastedo’s photography work, even if they don’t know his name. When the quintessentially Canadian band played its historic final concert last summer (spurred by the news of Hip frontman Gord Downie’s terminal brain cancer), Bastedo was the official photographer who shot all of the stunningly powerful, now iconic photos of the big event.
But Bastedo’s photography work is just one aspect of his career. He’s also an innovator in the digital marketing space, known for doing groundbreaking digital work with Ford in the U.S. about a decade ago, as well as more recent work with his current agency in Toronto, Gravity Partners Ltd., for clients like Coca-Cola, Sobeys and Corby. He’s even made a foray into digital strategy for various Canadian politicians over the years. His digital work stems, in fact, from his time at the Canadian Film Centre, where he was part of the TELUS Interactive Art and Entertainment Program in 1998.
Here, we chat with Bastedo about his unique career path, the lessons he learned during his time at the CFC, and the advice he would give to a young person starting their career today.
You’ve had a diverse and interesting career path — can you describe it for us?
David Bastedo: I have a different career than most people because I do a lot of different things. I’ve basically been a digital marketer since I left the CFC. I walked out of the CFC and I think within a week I had gotten a three-day contract at a place called Think Interactive, and I ended up staying there for a couple of years. Then I went to McLaren McCann, and then I started my own agency called Ten Plus One Communications in 2000. I had a couple of partners, and we also established Flash in the Can, which is now called FITC Festival.
Then I went on my own for a long time, and I started working with bands. The first band I worked with was HDRC, the Hugh Dillon Redemption Choir. Then I began working with the Headstones, The Tragically Hip, Sam Roberts, Sarah Harmer, Kathleen Edwards, and the Trews. I still work with The Hip.
I won an award for the website I created for The Hip — and that site tied directly in with what I had done at the CFC. At the CFC my project was called Our Definition, which was basically dynamic digital storytelling: we created content and put it into a database and made narrative content out of that. And at this point, I was starting to figure out databases even more. So I started working with Hip fans and collecting an archive of set lists and tour dates and locations. YouTube and Flickr had really just come out at the time, and I was trying to figure out how to integrate all this content, and I came up with the notion of the timeline based on the set lists that I collected. I started experimenting with APIs, and I figured out how to scrape YouTube for Tragically Hip content. I started working on natural language processing techniques, and I ended up figuring out how to interpret the data in being able to match content into a time, place and location. So I started integrating all these YouTube videos and I did the same thing with photographs.
Working with Ford was also an impressive achievement. How did that come about, and how did it tie in with your digital work for The Tragically Hip?
Bastedo: I got an email one day saying, “I really like your website, who did it?” (referring to the Hip site). And I responded saying, “I did, thanks very much.” And the next email was, “I’m going to pass your name onto my boss, I hope you don’t mind.” And the boss ended up being someone named Mark Russell, who was in charge of something called Wunderman Team Detroit, which was a conglomerate of companies all working on the digital content for Ford. He was basically the head of interactive on the agency side for Ford, and he flew up and met me and offered me work.
Advertising agencies didn’t really know how to deal with the new social conditions of the web at the time; they were used to creating a website over six months and then releasing it, and then working on the next website. But through my work in music I sort of understood what fans wanted. As part of my work with the Hip, I created the notion of an intermediary between the fans and the band. I created a character named MAv, who was named after my dog, and the purpose of MAv was to be this filter — basically a focal point for fans and content. My idea was that I wanted to make all the Hip fans wish they were me through the experiences I could share with them.
So then at Ford, I was able to bring this notion of quick turnaround of content to the auto industry. With The Hip, I had created a story engine and started collecting stories of fans, based on their experiences of concerts, favourite songs, stories like “I met my wife at a Hip concert” — that sort of thing. So I brought that to the car industry. Ford created a story engine based on customer experiences with cars, and we also created their first social content. So I led a team of around 12 people, and my job description was to do for Ford what I’d done for The Hip.
What are you up to now?
Bastedo: I’m currently a partner in a digital agency called Gravity. We started as a social agency where we do strategy and content for brands. So we created a content department, we have a video team, a photography team, and I was the first of that team. I set up a studio. My role at Gravity is “creative technologist.”
When it comes to my photography work, I’m known for my Hip work. I just recently started a new enterprise called LiveART to sell photos. I’ve worked out a deal with the Hip, so I’m selling official licensed and authorized photos. I designed all the packaging, and I do all the printing and packing myself.
Describe your experience shooting that final Tragically Hip tour last summer.
Bastedo: I was basically the on-tour documentary photographer. It was very emotional; an amazing experience. I remember thinking, “Anybody would want to be here.” I love music, and the ability to watch great live music and take pictures and document it — that’s a thrill in and of itself.
The final Hip show was good and bad, all at the same time. It was the best and the worst. Because of the situation (with Gord Downie’s health), and the fact that I had spent so many years with them, they’re pretty much family — so to see them going through this, and to see the fans, I cried every day for the first two weeks. I lost 15 pounds, in stress and in running up and down stadiums. But at the time, it was also the absolute best.
What did you take away from your time at the CFC?
Bastedo: The dynamic nature of storytelling and content, for one thing, was really something that I started to explore at the CFC. I started to understand databases there too, mainly because of my personal project. And teamwork: I started to understand how teams work and how important they are. I’ve worked in teams my entire career since then, and I learned there how important it is to be able to work with others. Solving problems has been a cornerstone of my entire career. So is the technical aspect — at the CFC I was one of the more technically inclined students, and that’s always been part of my process.
If you were to give advice to a young person starting out in their career, what would it be?
Bastedo: Drop the attitude. Hard work is necessary. I’ve spent hours and hours and hours and hours working, I’ve missed all sorts of things in my life. I’ve left the dentist chair right before having something drilled because a client called. I’m known for working late at night. I’ve spent countless hours late at night just hitting my head against the wall trying to figure things out.
And then teamwork: everybody likes to get along, and you need to figure out how to make an environment work for the team. That’s really important. It’s about being diligent and conscientious, and thinking of others and not just yourself. It’s also things like thinking twice about what you post on social media and how you want to portray yourself; because in this day and age, things will come back and haunt you.
And the best piece of advice my dad ever gave me was that if you’re the best at something, people will always want to hire you. It doesn’t matter what you do. So I always strive to be really good at the things I like to do.