Amber Lee is a Founding Partner and Director of Operations for Visual Country, a video production agency under the creative direction of Meagan Cignoli. Prior to starting Visual Country Amber launched eBay’s same day delivery service, eBay Now on the east coast, heading up operations and strategy for the service. Amber has an extensive history driving strategy and growth for startups. She previously founded the website Join Bklyn, and Creative Agency Bklyn Haus and held various management position since graduating from Richard Ivey School of Business.
Sophie: Hi Amber, welcome to the show.
Sophie: We are so excited to have you here and to learn a little bit more about your story and how you began with Visual Country. So go ahead and let's just kick things off by telling us your back story. I know you have a pretty extensive history working with startups. So I'm excited to hear more about your personal story.
Amber: Yeah. So I grew up in Canada and I moved to New York right when I finished school. So I went to business school in Canada but I started in film. And it's funny kind of ending up in doing what I do, which is kind of bridging commerce and art. At the time was kind of my intention. But didn't think of it until later. But anyways, I left Canada and I always wanted to move to New York and live in New York. And I started right out of school at. And then moved on from there realizing it just wasn't a fit and wanted to really badly be in the city that I had been visiting since I was 16. And so got into more of the tech world. And that's what led me to eBay, which is where I was before I started this business. But really how I got into Visual Country was through Meagan and us working together. And we had met in New York when I was working for a startup in the ad world. And we just kind of always worked together on things. And that's really, that relationship is where kind of led to visual country in the end. How far do you want me to go back in some of these things?
Sophie: Yeah, so where did the idea behind Visual Country come from and I know you co-founded it together, correct?
Amber: Yeah, Meagan and I started the business in 2013.
Sophie: So where did you see a need for the type of content you're now producing?
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Amber: Yeah, so Meagan was a fashion photographer for a really long time. And when I met her, that's what she was working on. And at the time I was working on music. And we were kind of helping each other become popular within our respective fields. And one of those tools that we used a lot of was social. And I remember talking to her early on when I met her and Instagram had I think kind of just come out at the time. This was a really long time ago. And she was a photographer. I was like, you should get on Instagram and start taking some photos there. And she's like, oh, I don't think I'll ever take a photo with my phone. And then flash forward maybe four years later, Vine came out and she'd been on Instagram at that point making content and getting more into video. And Vine came out and she started just creating these little videos on her phone of course. So it was just kind of ironic to have that conversation and then so many years later really we launched this business on an iPhone five. And won tons of awards for six second videos that were shot on this really buggy app that kind of took off really fast and is now longer around, which is also interesting and sad. But I was at eBay at the time. And I was working in operations for them heading up eBay now on the east coast which was same day delivery service. Kind of competing with Amazon Prime. So doing more business tech stuff. And watching Meagan at all hours of the night kind of transform our living room and our house or our apartment in Brooklyn into these little sets. And she just kept going into it. And we had another conversation at that time where I was like, maybe you shouldn't put all your time into this thing. And then we looked back at that conversation and I'm like, I'm so glad that you did not listen to me because that was really bad advice. Because what happened is that these little videos that she was creating, they were very fashion forward, but stop motion. It was almost like she stumbled upon stop motion by accident, which is ... I don't know, there's that naivety approach to things that I find often can produce some really interesting work. And did for her at that time through the app. And Vine just took off and she was at that point I think getting like 5000 followers a day following her on this platform. And in the context of things there was no Instagram video, there was no Twitter video, there was really just YouTube and I don't know ... There was no social platforms that had native video at the time really other than YouTube. So and sharing that on Facebook. And so it was this really new thing and the only way to get in front of it for brands and it's all about eyeballs. How many views you can get and how many people are watching. And there was no mechanism to save a video let alone for a brand to sign up and buy media against it. And you think now, it's six years later there's so many avenues and all of the platforms of course have native video in them. But it was really novel and new at the time for everyone. And it caught the attention of a lot of agencies and brands and one of the first people to reach out to Meagan was Lowes at VBDO. And we did 60 videos collectively for them at that time. And some later on as well more recently. But of these little how-to videos for things around your house like if you stripped a screw and you could no longer tighten it or loosen it, you take a rubber band and you put that between the screw and the screwdriver and it will give it enough friction that you can then move it one way or the other. And it was six seconds and it looped. And it was really grainy and you had one take. So sometimes the app would crash and you'd sit there for 10 hours and you'd create something and you'd have to start again. And you couldn't see anything until it was done. So you didn't really know there was no ghost tools, there was no tools to really do stop motion. And that also created something really unique and beautiful that then became I guess a case study for a lot of brands because we won a lot of awards that year for that exact piece that I referenced with the screw. And just a lot of other things. And press and ... And it was in a lot of ways the launching of video and not just through us but a lot of people and a lot of creators and also influencer marketing became I think a huge ... It builds even on top of that. The kind of YouTube successes of Justin Bieber and whoever else. I didn't really follow all of them, but ... the new batch of kids and creators and we were on the creator side. We didn't become like Shawn Mendez but we did definitely build something and a career and a business through this platform that was only around for a few years. And that captured the attention of I think at some point it was around 40 million people that were on there. And we had about a million followers when it shut down. So that was a little painful too.
Sophie: Yeah. I find that entire time when social media was just budding and then all the different apps and how businesses ended up on social media just looking back on it is, it's so fascinating to watch that history unfold now from such a different perspective of actually working in the industry. But I would love for you to touch more on that transition from when Vine did go away, what your feelings were, how you guys bounced back and now how you've kind of created the same thing but Instagram and just done a beautiful job of it.
Amber: Yeah, thank you. I wouldn't say we bounced back because we never went anywhere. And we really ... Vine, as soon as it happened, we started moving into other things. And I knew that it might not stick around. I guess, I don't know, that just enough fear in you to think that things are going to fail to keep you moving onto something else. Or good things can't last forever. So by the time that Vine left, we were still investing a little bit in it as a platform where we were putting content that we had created on it. But not everyday. Not like when it was blossoming. A lot of creators had at that point left in at least spirit, even if they were on it. It was like the spirit of it had died. And I think that's really what killed it in the end. Among it being also probably a lot of money out the window every month for Twitter. But yeah, excuse me ... I lost my train of thought on that one. But ...
Sophie: That's okay. How did you then transition to Instagram and when things like Stories came about and Instagram video? Was that just something you guys were so excited to jump on?
Amber: Yeah. I think it's been fun to play with some of those tools ourselves and with brands. And we did funny enough some other ... Not to keep plugging Lowes and VBDO, but we did another Story campaign with them more recently, which was playing off the size and just the whole way that stories kind of come together a little bit frame by frame. So that was really cool. And it's still a fun place I think to try new things and share your work.
Sophie: Absolutely. Other than an instructional video or how-to where do you think stop motion is most successful?
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Amber: I think it's ... I think the brilliance in stop motion is that you can tell a really complicated story really quickly without language and people. And that makes it really universal in a lot of ways. Which for a big brand especially I think can be really appealing. As you're marketing so internationally and trying also sometimes within brand guidelines or legal parameters that keep creators a little bit in a box. Not in a bad way but just, it's a business and things way. And so yeah.
Sophie: I love that perspective of just the universal language of an image or a video. That's so true and I've never really considered it that way from a branding standpoint. All of our clients that we work with are within the US and English speaking. So that's a really fascinating perspective. I'd love to learn what you think about the new app, Tik Tok and whether you see a future for businesses on there.
Amber: I don't know Tik Tok.
Sophie: Oh okay. It's kind of like a similar one to Vine that's popping up. I'd say a lot of the younger generations are using it more for silly videos and brands haven't really made their appearance on it yet, but it's being heavily compared to Vine and everyone says it's kind of the next Vine in the making. So I guess we'll just have to stay tuned for that one.
Amber: Yeah. I think there's ... I think it will be ... It's a difficult thing to replicate, I can tell you that at least. That I think the spirit and energy of any app, like Snapchat and Twitter and Facebook, they all have their moment. And there have been other ones that I've heard of. And even the creators, old creators of Vine looking to recreate something similar around looping video and video in general. And there are moments that I certainly miss the ... There was a lot of audio components to Vine, which I think it makes sense that there was a lot of musicians that came up out of it. And timing wise for comedians, there was something around a rhythm that the six seconds created. So it would be hard but interesting if someone could kind of recreate that.
Sophie: Yeah absolutely. Tik Tok has that similar looping situation. But I'd be very curious to see what you think of it. You'll have to check it out after we get offline.
Amber: Yeah, I'll check it.
Sophie: So can you give a little bit ... I love what you said earlier about a social media strategy can bridge kind of commerce and art at the same time. I feel like that's so in line with what we do here in Atlanta and I'm sure what you guys do in New York. So I'd love to know what your take on kind of the best ingredients to a social media strategy are.
Amber: The best ingredients for a social media strategy. I think that it's a little bit planning and a little bit going with the flow. But I think any of the good social accounts like from brands or from individuals as well, they definitely have a clear point of view. And they don't stray too wildly from whatever brand aesthetic they've created. Whether it's this kind of all white or I don't know, funny, or whatever, the kind of glue that keeps it all together. And it's not to say that you should be rigid because I think there needs to be some flexibility. But how I've broken it up in the past is in different ways, but sometimes looking in three, dividing it into three and that's things that are experimental and that's probably your smallest maybe bucket. That's where you kind of push the limits a little bit. And do things that are new. And then things that are kind of the larger campaigns and more like thoughtful and probably the creative timelines on those are not like ... They don't have to be long, but they're probably a little bit longer and a little bit more going through a story boarding phase and a treatment phase. And less in the moment. And then there's the last thing, where stories I think fall a lot, and that's not entirely because I think there are definitely more put together stories. But these things that are in the moment and more timely and a little bit perishable. So you can also get a little experimental there. But a little bit more quantity over quality. But still without straying far from your brand.
Sophie: For sure. I love what you said about the spontaneity of stories because I run our Imagine Media stories and I find myself often planning ahead and thinking okay, on this day I'll post this. But then something amazing happens within the office and I think it's really important to capture those super organic moments just as much.
Amber: Yeah. I think the brands need a personality. And it's hard. It's a lot to figure out and invest in and keep up with. And balance how much should I be sharing? How often should I be sharing? What's the right little mix here for everyone? But it's thoughtful I think even in its spontaneity.
Sophie: Absolutely. I'd love to get a window into what your team looks like now and how you are running your internal marketing efforts, getting the brand awareness out for Visual Country.
Amber: Yeah. We're about 15 people usually. It flows a little bit. We've been about that size since almost the beginning. And we have our producers and accounts and sales and our social media team. And then the rest is mostly creatives. And those would be directors and illustrators, designers, editors, master crafters and fabricators. Everyone is a little bit of a generalist in that they can or don't mind at least to wear a lot of hats because we're small. And nimble in that way. But then each person has I think something that they offer that's a little bit different and unique and specialized that they can impart on the rest of the team and into the work. And into our kind of create a diverse group of people that get along and can create some cool stuff together.
Sophie: It sounds like you guys have a good harmony going there. I'd love to learn more about the processes behind what it looks like when a client signs on with you and how you begin their journey and then kind of lead them down that creative road.
Amber: Yeah absolutely. It's funny because I haven't gone down the sales cycle as much myself. It's I guess you start a business and then you hand off things to other people. To it's kind of fun to revisit this. But because I haven't had to talk about it in a little while. But usually there's kind of two ways that we work. We work with agencies and we work with brands directly. We're pretty flexible in terms of who we work with. We're just interested in working with nice people that want to create cool stuff and interesting brands. And sometimes they're coming to us with an idea for us to bring to life and consult on. And sometimes they're looking and most often I would say, excuse me, they're looking for us to concept and write treatments based on a brief or brand guideline or some maybe loose idea or event or whatever it is that is the messaging or story or focal point behind what it is that we're doing. Do you want me to go through the whole thing, the whole process of things?
Sophie: Yeah sure. I just think it's fascinating to hear how when maybe you weren't given the creative direction how you come up with those treatments.
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Amber: Yeah. I think ... I don't have to do that myself. But I do end up coming into play a lot at the editing stage and for me, and what I see the team doing a lot of is a lot of research into the brand and also just I think it's one of those things that when you're in this world or when you're a creator, you kind of live and breathe it. And you're just kind of always following and finding inspiration. Like we're often sharing on [inaudible 00:19:57] and through Instagram as we come across things that we find interesting or things that, ways we could experiment or ideas. And so it's kind of always these ... It's kind of building a little bit of a library for yourself of not necessarily ideas, but inspiration for sure. And approaches to problems and stories because it's often creating some kind of story for a brand around something or service.
Sophie: Absolutely. What are some of the biggest challenges you've faced during that process?
Amber: I think there's always going to be some kind of box to ... Which is good and bad. There's the budget box that confines you a little bit in what you can do. And scope of things. And then there's the brand ideas or guidelines that will bring you and confine you a little bit. But I think those are also interesting challenges and it's almost nice to have a little bit of something to hone in your thinking or your vision because if you ... Sometimes it's hard to hand someone a blank canvas and be like, "Create something great." So having a little bit of direction is good. But we always advise our team or whenever we're training them we talk a lot about finding creating mood boards and inspirations early on before you're even necessarily trying to fill a story or write a story. And Meagan, her advice was always early on looking at a treatment or a treatment and thinking of it as an image first and a story later. So thinking, what is the frame? What is that one moment like that clutch moment that would be worthy of a still, right? That it could stand alone as a still. And then building movement around that and building a story around that. And I think that helps also keep stories pretty short because we're ... Not that all we do is short stories, but that's certainly where we started and really short micro content. So we do know how to do that and we often emulate that even in the longer form where our scenes or the pieces of the story are short and quick and bite size. Excuse me. But I think that helps kind of keep that story quick and to the point, which helps their brand to sell, especially on social when you don't have people's attention for very long.
Sophie: Absolutely. Do you find that when ... I like what you said about how much time goes into really thinking about even just that one frame. I remember when I first started at Imagine and shadowed a stop motion shoot, it was just so interesting to see them move every tiny little inch of product in the right place to really create that flow. But do you find that it's challenging to really convey that to the partners that you're working with to just ... It becomes something that looks quite simple at the end, but so much work goes into it.
Amber: Yeah. I think at earlier days, I think it was a lot more education around it. But I think that stop motion is more widely used now. But still there's we do talk a lot about the process and what it means because it is very laborious and time consuming work. And we have some tricks that we can do to make it easier on ourselves and still get ideas across in the way we want. But there's always a little bit of massaging ideas. Even if an agency was coming to us with a treatment we're often taking that and I find most of the time when I read a treatment from anyone, if they're like, this is 15 seconds. And I'm like, it's not, it's like 45 seconds. And so it's like how much can you fit into this time and being able to trim it down.
Sophie: Yeah, I can imagine that's a ... Expectations are probably very difficult to set sometimes for sure. So just a few questions before we wrap things up. Other than those projects, do you have anything else that really stands out in your mind and the history of the company that you're most proud of?
Amber: Most of the projects that I'm most proud of, I was heavily involved in. And got my hands dirty so to speak with them. There was one project that I like showing as a portfolio piece that we did for Tommy Hilfiger and Time Magazine a few years ago. And it was a beach scene. And I figured out how to paint sand, which was a fun little challenge because we had ... We wanted the sand to be this specific color and we're like, oh maybe we can mix wall paint with sand and it will just make it that color and be fine. And it turns out that works. And still is basically like sand because it didn't ... If you get the right mix. Anyways, it's in some ways a silly reason to be so fond of it, but I put a lot of my sweat and blood into that set.
Amber: And I think in the end it's a really beautiful little 15 second commercial.
Sophie: That sounds brilliant. I'm a big beach girl so I can't wait to check that one out. But I think it's interesting that you say that because it's so fascinating to look back on photo shoots and what comes out and looks and seems simple, took so much prep work probably and planning and prop sourcing. It's so interesting to see that side of the creative process.
Amber: Yeah absolutely. I do enjoy the work, or even if I don't get to be a part of it in the same way that I may have been at other times, it's fun to watch other people build things around and get to just observe some of the fabricating and building that happens here.
Sophie: Absolutely. So what's next for Visual Country? What do you see on the horizon?
Amber: Yeah, we're working with a few new directors that I'm excited about that's getting more and more into live action and the commercial space. And my business partner and creative director Meagan, she recently moved, last year moved out to LA. So we've started to expand a little bit out there. As we get into longer form, more narrative content. And developing some scripts on the west coast that I'm pretty excited about.
Sophie: Very cool. Are you bouncing back and forth then or do you pretty much communicate remotely?
Amber: We do a lot of remote communication. Our whole team, we even have one of our teammates is in Australia. Are you from Australia?
Sophie: I'm from England originally.
Amber: England. I can't tell which accent you have.
Sophie: I've been in America too long.
Amber: But she, we have ... Yeah, we're able to ... Everything was in the cloud. So we can operate pretty remotely pretty easily, which is great. But yeah, I and some of our team we've already shot a couple projects out there for mod cloth, which is really fun. And some of our team out there, some of our team from New York were a part of that. And so myself, I'm there yeah every couple months or so getting back to the west coast. But I like it out there. The weather's nice so it's hard to complain.
Sophie: I would agree. Right now in Atlanta we're just full of pollen and it's hot and I would love to live in California that's for sure. So tell our listeners where they can keep up with Visual Country.
Sophie: Awesome. Well we can't wait to follow along and continue to be inspired by you guys day to day.
Amber: Cool. Yeah well thank you.
Sophie: Thank you so much.
Amber: Yeah, I appreciate it. It was fun.
Sophie: Thank you for joining us. Absolutely.