In an age of vanishing markets and tenuous economics, troubled businesses are easy to find. But Cosmic Blender, a 16-year-old digital-media agency outside of Boston, isn’t one of them. In the past two years the company has expanded its client list and production tool set, renovated its office space, beefed up its staff and rebranded itself to reflect a broadening mix of media services.
The persistent optimism doesn’t surprise those who “Clients don’t ask for rate sheets anymore,” says Paul Reynolds, Cosmic Blender’s vice president and partner. “We send them our signature Blender Box or we just tell them to log onto our Web site while we’ve got them on the phone.” One look inside the
Blender Box, packed with a demo reel and margarita glass full of gourmet jellybeans, and you realize that this creative shop will even risk being corny to get your attention. Whimsical humor, it turns out, is just one of Cosmic Blender’s strategic icebreakers: It’s the mix of clever, metaphor-driven story-lines, interactive content and sophisticated, full-screen videos that turn historically dry online training inside out.
Though the company offers a full range of a la carte media services, the bulk of Cosmic Blender’s business comes from creating online corporate training applications, or “branded e-learning media,” as Reynolds is quick to define it. Internet-consulting firm IDC predicted that corporate spending on electronic learning–which topped out at $2 billion in 1999–is expected to reach $23 billion by 2004. Reynolds says Cosmic Blender is uniquely positioned to take advantage of that growth.
“The idea of learning that we promote is that media should teach, not train. We already understand that if you want to be engaging without being pedantic, you have to use all of the tools we know about to really reach your audience, including advertising techniques, great stories and broadcast visual appeal. Just because information is being delivered on a computer doesn’t make it compelling.”
Clients such as the Mayo Clinic, Staples, Teradyne, Starwood Hotels, Converse and AT&T Broadband have found this approach both refreshing and sustaining. “Typically, our clients have already defined effective teaching as a key strategic corporate goal,” says Reynolds. “That kind of shared vision lets us build strong ongoing relationships with the training or new-media teams that our clients have in-house.” (For potential clients who haven’t gotten that far, Cosmic offers half- and full-
day “boot camps” that walk corporate communication professionals through a number of e-learning and marketing options delivered “with a Blender twist.”)
According to Lisa Rebello, director of business development and communications strategist, fostering the idea of one big, happy team also helps the bottom line. “When you’re having more honest conversations with your client, it also lets you plan differently, think differently and project differently If a client has to lay low for a few months for financial reasons, we don’t freak out, because they usually tell us up front that they will be coming back. What we’ve found is that the large corporations are the ones that make the necessary investment to do it correctly.”
This winter, when other new media businesses were closing for good, Cosmic Blender was expanding. New hires included two graphics designers, two new-media developers, an IT specialist-hired from MIT’s Media Lab-who also manages the company’s streaming media network, an interactive project manager/producer and a post-production coordinator. Reynolds says the company will likely fill several programming spots in the near future.
This does come with a caveat, however: Everything in moderation. ‘We’ve been careful not to grow the business too fast,” says Reynolds. “We were approached by a number of investors in the past few years, but we’re committed to growing things slowly and keeping this a private, and above all, personable company.” He credits the Cosmic staff with setting the standard. Says Rebello, “When clients and potential clients walk in the door here, there’s just this vibe that people connect with and that makes them immediately feel comfortable. You don’t get that in a lot of places.”
Before there was Cosmic Blender, there was CF Video. Founded by Bill Churchill’s father, CF Video opened shop 16 years ago as a documentary-production house. The company had its first profitable year, says Reynolds, when Bill Churchill took the helm as president in 1991.
“We didn’t do what a lot of our competitors did, which was ditch video when the Web got hot,” says Reynolds. “We remain 100 percent committed to the full-screen moving image, especially over a network. And Bill has understood that it’s all about delivery from the beginning.”
Though Cosmic remains a well-respected video company–a good part of its business comes from production and post-production services–the growth of its new-media division had staff searching for a better name. The company rebranding effort, led by creative director John Bennett, began two years ago. “I don’t even remember the transition, it was so seamless,” says Rebello. “It feels like we’ve always been Cosmic Blender.”
The “mix” and “blend” metaphors that Cosmic Blender now uses in all of its promotional material, stem from its partnership with its corporate sibling, FableVision, the independent animation company
across the hall that began as a division of CF Video. In fact, it’s not so easy to see where Cosmic Blender ends and FableVision begins: All of Cosmic Blender’s producers and new media staff have offices on the FableVision side of the studio, and staff from both companies often work together on projects. It gets even harder to tell them apart when you discover that FableVision’s president, Peter Reynolds, is Paul’s twin brother.
As you’d expect from twins, the collaborative creative process began early for the Reynolds brothers. By second grade, says Paul, they were producing their own newspaper. “I would write, and Peter would draw the pictures.
My father would then take it to work and print it up on the office copier.” The two of them were doing it so often, he says, that one day his mother brought home an old Savin copier salvaged from her office. “It was pretty hideous, but nobody in our house cared. It sat in the dining room, and my mother would put a white tablecloth over it when guests came.”
The Reynolds brothers learned early that creativity springs from a supportive environment. “People always ask us, ‘How is it that both of you, coming from a long line of accountants, became so creative?’ Well, it wasn’t that we were innately so creative. We were just allowed to be creative. That’s the kind of place we hope we’ve built here at Cosmic and Fable.”
Many clients believe it is what sets the company apart from the competition. “They try to take a creative and engaging approach to everything they do,” says Paulette Reed, director of training at Sheraton Hotels (now part of Starwood). “I think that’s one of the reasons why it was so successful.”
Reynolds practices what he preaches, even outside the office: He has spent the past 11 years teaching broadcast writing, editing and production at Boston College. He piloted the first Avid editing class at the school. Many of the Cosmic staff are also former students. “Our managing director, Julie Ogles–who is as near to a second president as we’ve got–was one of my first students,” he adds.
Broadband or Bust
One example of the Cosmic and FableVision creative blend at work is a series of projects the company produced for AT&T Broadband. Back in 1997, when no one knew what broadband was, CF Video had a chance introduction to the technology. At the time, CF’s new director of business development and communications strategist, Lisa Rebello, introduced MediaOne’s Pat Weger to the studio’s range of services.
Weger, MediaOne’s vice president for learning and development, instantly clicked with CF’S interactive team. “Pat was supposed to be here for 20 minutes one day, and she ended up staying for about four hours,” says Rebello. “What came out of that four-hour meeting was a detailed plan for Broadband University, the virtual home for MediaOne’s enterprise-wide learning and development initiative.”
Using Macromedia Director, Flash and the Avid 9000 XL nonlinear online edit suite, the CF Video production team delivered a series of associate and managerial training videos starring a cast of 2D-animated characters created by Peter Reynolds. The series follows Nina, a broadband installer, and the sprightly Professor Wayland Way through the virtual halls of Broadband University. Other characters in the series include Ken Dewitt, a stressed-out manager; Lee Wei, a recently promoted manager; and new employee Adam Newley.
Rebello says that as Broadband University grew, so too did MediaOne’s reliance on the now renamed Cosmic Blender. “Pat really understands the power that learning and branding can have within an organization. We worked with them on developing communication vehicles and identity campaigns for Broadband U.
It turned Out to be the ideal brand umbrella for all of MediaOne’s training programs,” she says. In conjunction with the program, Cosmic created a number of live-action sales videos for MediaOne, produced by Nancy Hagens and edited by Adem Bush in Cosmic’s Avid and Quantel Editbox suites. Creative director John Bennett also penned a few original songs to jazz up the content.
When AT&T Broadband acquired MediaOne last year and merged the company with PCI, the future of the project seemed uncertain. But Pat Weger, who was made vice president of learning and development at the new company, and Peg Gaven, a Director at AT&T Broadband, saw an opportunity to keep the program and the characters alive and unify the different corporate cultures at the same time.
The result was an intranet-based interactive style guide to the characters, logos, templates and background material that unify all of AT&T Broadband’s training material. “The style guide is the resting place for all of the archived content created for AT&T Broadband by Cosmic and Fable,” says Rebello.
Working closely with Rebello and producer Shellah Ward, new-media director Doug Gastich and his team built the style guide using Adobe Photoshop and a variety of HTML text editors in conjunction with Dreamwear. “Flash was used as a production tool to create the characters, but the spec for the Style Guide didn’t require full animation,” says Gastich. “We exported them to the site as animated GIFs. This has to be accessible by anyone in the company, so we didn’t want to limit them with media that required a plug-in to view it.”
Gastich says that Cosmic’s lead designer and programmer were also careful to work within the parameters of AT&T Broadband’s existing intranet. “We ended up working closely with them to make sure that our design kept its own characteristics but also worked within their network. A lot of time the designer will do something and the programmer will just execute it. In this case, it was a highly collaborative process.”
Cosmic’s next project for AT&T, says Rebello, will likely integrate Web and video. “You typically have your Web shops and your video shops,” adds Gastich. “We’ve made a strategy of getting really good at the Web stuff while using low-bandwidth techniques. Only very recently are we able to integrate it with the competency that we’ve kept all these years, which is video.”
Playing in the Editbox
Depending on the project, you might find Cosmic Blender video editors Patrick Gaspar and Adem Bush in the company’s now fully digital and component Digital Betacam Suite–known as the “D Suite”–in the Avid 9000 online suite, where about 60 percent of the projects are finished, or in the Avid 8000 suite doing offline edits. Their newest space is the fully loaded Quantel Editbox FX Compositing Suite, where they edit in-house projects or complete post work for clients Allen & Gerritsen, VideoLink and ABC News.
Business may be good, but how can the company justify such a pricey, uncompressed system, which also happens to be the first one operating in New England? “We wanted a lossless, digital nonlinear online suite,” says Reynolds. “The Editbox is not only a powerful compositing tool but is also a pure editorial tool, When we looked at comparable systems, we found some great compositing tools. Quantel’s was the only one that also worked as a traditional editor without creating a lot of hoops to jump through.”
Another well-used tool is the company’s Sony RTE 3000 real-time MPEG-1 encoding system. “It’s an $80,000 box that is probably one of the most used systems in the house,” says Paul Reynolds. Churchill suggested investing in the system after they received several poor encoding jobs from outsourced service bureaus. “When the bureaus told us that video people are too fussy about quality, we knew it was time to bring the encoding in house,” says Reynolds. “It was one of the smartest things we’ve ever done.”
Bill Churchill and the Reynolds brothers continue to have their eyes on emerging delivery technology. Cosmic Blender and FableVision recently became licensed PDA encoders for ActiveSky’s Media Players and its wireless rich-media delivery technology. The first applications for ActiveSky are “BeamCards,” animated greeting cards developed by Peter Reynolds, that are sent via handheld organizers. Paul Reynolds sees the future in this delivery format, where one day video and animation will be as at home on the handheld as it is on the big screen. “We now have the technology to take any file and encode it for delivery over a fully interactive PDA,” he says. “The rest will follow.”
For this digital shop, form will also continue to follow function. “The center of the hub for us is design,” says Reynolds. “It doesn’t matter whether that means logo, print, broadcast, non-broadcast, Web, CD-ROM, PDA or temporary tattoo–as long as it all starts with a good idea.”
PRINCIPAL BUSINESS ACTIVITIES: Developing and producing ED-ROM and Web-based market and training-media applications for Fortune-1000 corporations; video production and post-production services.