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Digital Storytellers: How One Production Company Is Working To Build A Creative Utopia

MediaMonks has been the production force behind some of the brand world’s most interesting projects lately, and will create the platform for Fox’s upcoming series, Utopia. Co-founders Victor Knaap and Wesley ter Haar talk about how they grew their business from a tiny basement boutique into a major creative digital production company.

Digital Storytellers: How One Production Company Is Working To Build A Creative Utopia

Thirteen years ago Victor Knaap and Wesley ter Haar co-founded MediaMonks in Hilversum, a city 20 minutes outside of Amsterdam known as the media capital of the Netherlands. “We call it the Hollywood of the Netherlands,” Knaap says. Those early days in the Hollywood of the Netherlands weren’t so glamorous, though. The MediaMonks office was tucked away in the basement of a hotel (you couldn’t beat the rent because it was free, Knaap points out), the fledgling operation only had four employees, and they were making a lot of websites for family and friends.

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But in just over a decade MediaMonks has grown to become a large creative digital production company with 200 employees and offices in Amsterdam (well, technically, the office is still in Hilversum, but it’s not in that hotel basement anymore), New York, London, Singapore and, soon, Los Angeles. It’s also been behind the scenes on several of the brand world’s notable digital projects over the past few years. While the L.A. office has yet to open (the goal is to be in a space in Venice by mid-August), MediaMonks already has a team working on getting a digital platform for the U.S. incarnation of Utopia up and running in time for the show’s premiere on Fox this fall.

Taking reality television to a whole new level, Utopia will follow a group of 15 Americans brought to an undeveloped location where they will have one year to build the kind of society they would like to inhabit. The show, masterminded by Big Brother creator John de Mol, is based on his original version, which debuted in the Netherlands this past January to massive ratings.

Working with the concept team behind Utopia and Talpa Connect, the digital arm of de Mol’s media holdings company, MediaMonks created the online experience that has become a fundamental companion to the Dutch show, which is still on the air. “We wanted to use the digital space to bring the candidates living in Utopia and the viewers as close together as possible, so we incorporated a whole host of special elements to let viewers feel part of the experience itself,” Knaap says. “This included community-building features, gamification, and continuous content streams.”

The digital platform for the U.S. incarnation of Utopia will be similar, though adapted to fit the needs of the market.

Knaap and ter Haar can certainly relate to the concept behind Utopia. After all, these two men created their own digital shop from scratch with limited resources, and while it remains to be seen how the contestants on either version of Utopia will ultimately fare, Knaap and ter Haar are pleased with what they’ve made and the work they are doing.

MediaMonks has built all sorts of innovative digital experiences for their clients over the years, with highlights from recent months including an interactive game powered by social media for Iris and the agency’s client Adidas called Fast or Fail featuring soccer star Lionel Messi and the “7 Days of Rain” test for SMFB Oslo that has an urbanite being followed around by a manmade rain cloud for a week to show how well his water-resistant Geox shoes stand up to the deluge.

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The company was also involved in orchestrating an interactive nighttime tour of Marseilles for Google Creative Labs and 72andSunny Amsterdam and produced a Feedies app for New York’s TribalDDB that gives foodies the chance to feed the hungry by sharing photos of their dishes, triggering restaurants to make meal donations to The Lunchbox Fund, which feeds poor and at-risk children.

Elsewhere, MediaMonks built the “Sweetie” YouTube channel as part of Dutch agency Lemz’ “Becoming Sweetie” campaign for Terre des Hommes. A 3-D character named Sweetie was actually used by the children’s charity Terre des Hommes to catch child predators.

Co.Create talked to Knaap and ter Haar, who function as CEO and head of operations of MediaMonks, respectively, about building a global digital production company from the ground up.

BE WILLING TO START OVER TO ACHIEVE YOUR DREAM

MediaMonks started out as a boutique design shop that evolved into a creative digital production company. And while the company was by all measures successful a few years into its launch, “I think we felt we were not really pushing any boundaries when it came to this work,” Knaap says.

So in 2008 he and ter Haar made a conscious decision to become a creative digital production company dedicated to craft and digital storytelling. That meant turning down lucrative work in what had been a booming market for the company to go into what, at the time, was a much smaller market, working with big international agencies to share their ideas on digital platforms. “We felt we could deliver more interesting work and also get the international growth we weren’t seeing at the moment by doing this,” Knaap says. “It was almost, to be honest, a bit of a reset of our company, and I think that choice made us what we are now.”

BE A CREATIVE PARTNER TO YOUR CLIENTS, NOT SIMPLY A VENDOR

“We never want to be in a situation where we’re not working together based on shared ambitions,” ter Haar says of the relationship MediaMonks has with its clients.

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This is especially important with advertising agency clients who are “literally giving one of their babies to someone else to care for,” ter Haar stresses. “From our perspective, the feeling should always be that it’s in safe hands but also that it’s not in the hands of somebody who is just there to make their margin.”

With that in mind, MediaMonks has created a system that allows its people to focus on creativity. “We don’t register working hours, so people don’t bill their hours to a project. That’s something that’s not part of our model, which means it frees up people to be creative and ambitious instead of looking at how many hours they have left to spend on their projects,” ter Haar maintains.


GO GLOBAL, BUT FOSTER A CONNECTED CULTURE

Whenever MediaMonks opens a new office, Knaap is there to set it up and put an experienced team in place, and keeping that team connected to ter Haar’s group back in the Netherlands is a priority.

Ter Haar says it is important that everyone–whether they work in Singapore or New York–has an understanding of the MediaMonks creative culture and then the opportunity to build their own version of it in their respective locations.

Spending time together is vital to keeping bonds strong, and the company schedules events to unite its far-flung employees, including a huge winter outing “where we go snowboarding with 200 people,” ter Haar says, noting there is a summer outing, too. “We tend to think that the best way to keep our culture is to have everybody at the same spot at the same time, sharing a few beers and stories. That’s something we’ve always kept doing even as we grew and even when maybe the numbers didn’t make it financially smart.”

DON’T USE HOT TECHNOLOGY JUST FOR THE SAKE OF IT

There are more technological options rolling out every day, and as a company that thrives on technology, MediaMonks has to look at those options and see if they can find a place for them but only when it makes sense. “The challenge is in saying no. We are always trying to stay away from something that’s too gimmicky or is technology for technology’s sake,” Knaap says. “So it’s being able to be extremely excited about technology but then not letting it cloud your judgment when it comes to the actual work you’re doing.”

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Take Google Glass. MediaMonks has not jumped on the bandwagon. It’s interesting, but it doesn’t have scale yet, Knaap reasons. “We’re mostly focused on ideas and create executions that have scale, and a lot of the stuff that’s happening at the moment tends to be quite contained because it’s completely related to or completely reliant on having a certain piece of technology available to experience it, which I think is something that’s going to be a struggle in the next year or so,” Knaap says.

YOU’LL NEVER REGRET WORKING FOR FREE WHEN IT IS FOR A NOBLE CAUSE

MediaMonks is in business to sell products, whether its beer or shoes, and make money, of course. But the company also likes to pitch in and help good causes. “We have a percentage of our time we spend on charities. It’s part of our business offering,” Knaap says.

Case in point: MediaMonks was one of several partners that came together to help the Amsterdam advertising agency Lemz with the aforementioned “Becoming Sweetie” project. “You hear advertising can change the world and seeing it in action and being such a close part of it was, I think, one of the most amazing things we’ve been able to work on,” ter Haar says of the project for which MediaMonks donated its digital production know-how.

“It’s quite easy to become cynical in this line of work,” ter Haar adds. “So I think it allows people to work on stuff that has a different type of impact than just moving boxes.”

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About the author

Christine Champagne is a New York City-based journalist best known for covering creativity in television and film, interviewing the talent in front of the camera and behind-the-scenes. She has written for outlets including Emmy, Variety, VanityFair.com, Redbook, Time Out New York and TVSquad.com.

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