In mid-March, media and entertainment companies across the globe and throughout the industry began to face what China had experienced since January — the realities of the Coronavirus Pandemic social distancing and isolation. Amidst this public health crisis, companies abruptly confronted extreme technical and workflow challenges while continuing to create and distribute content.
During this historic outbreak, Signiant launched “The Pandemic Series,” a collection of articles, interviews, and other content from the industry, for the industry.
As part of the series, Signiant interviewed industry professionals on how they transitioned and maintained remote work, what their challenges and successes were, and what lessons they’ve learned from it. Each one is a snapshot in time from their particular company, industry, geography, and personal perspective.
London, UK | June 03, 2020
SIGNIANT: Tell us a bit about ZOO Digital
JULIAN DAY: ZOO Digital is a localization supplier to the movie and entertainment business. That is subtitling and scripting, language dubbing, artwork localization, digital packaging and delivery for OTT platforms. We provide language services to most of the Hollywood studios, all the big OTT platforms, and top tier independent distributors, as well. We’re also active in the advertising world for those services.
All our software is cloud-based, but we don’t license the software. We are a transactional business, in terms of services. Whether it’s Sony or Netflix or Universal or something like that, they commission us to provide language versions of movies and TV, and we will do that using our network of freelance translators, directors, adaptors, scriptors, and all those freelancers around the world are using our cloud technology to do the work.
We’ve got a very robust, localization ecosystem, where all the project management, all of the systems talk to each other because it’s all cloud. You can track your projects in real time and get constant live updates
SIGNIANT: Back to early March, when social isolation and distancing started to become the norm for Europe and the US markets, how did you transition, and how much warning did you have to make the migration to home?
JULIAN DAY: In the London office, which is relatively small — there’s only about eight people in — we unilaterally decided we were just going to start working from home. [In] Sheffield, there was more to do from an IT perspective because there’s a hundred people up there. Making sure everybody had everything they needed at home was a bit more of a logistical exercise. And obviously, we didn’t have that long to do it, but we were anticipating lockdown coming probably about a week before it actually did. So there was a little bit of interruption for us.
In the US, we’ve have about a hundred people in Los Angeles, in Manhattan Beach. That needed a little more head scratching, because some people were still going into the office. You still had to go in on an isolated basis to perform some functions with some of the equipment, which is all on premises. But 90-odd percent of the work that we do is achievable online.
SIGNIANT: With your operations already cloud-based and your work-force around the world, it seems your technical operations didn’t have to change much.
JULIAN DAY: For us, the transition to working from home and adapting to the latest situations was pretty straightforward, because both employees and all our project management are all online. It’s all in the cloud so they just needed to have a computer at home in order to access everything they needed to. All our language specialists are freelancers in territory so they’re just logging in to our systems online. It was a pretty straightforward transition to remote working. I almost sound sort of glib, in that, “Yeah. That’s fine. No problem.” But because of the things we’ve done over the years, it wasn’t really. It’s not just being pompous. It’s actually just the way it was.
SIGNIANT: What were the challenges for you in making that transition? Was it just as little as picking up and changing locations and you’re back to work, or were there managerial or technical challenges that you had to face?
JULIAN DAY: More managerial than technical. Our HR department’s been working hard to keep people enthused, motivated,and looked after. Myself, I work from home 50% of the time anyway. If I don’t have to go to the office, I don’t need to. For me, it was a straightforward transition, and I’ve got a half decent house with a garden and things like that, so I’m all right.
SIGNIANT: What about on the business side of things?
JULIAN DAY: We’ve had a lot of people coming to us because of our unique cloud voice capture system for dubbing languages. So where other places have bricks and mortar studios, those were all obviously all shut. Voice talent in Italy, France, Spain, Japan — everywhere — were all stuck at home, so people couldn’t record the foreign language voices in the traditional manner. Whereas, we can.
So various movie studios and TV distributors were suddenly knocking on our door. Before they thought what we were doing was witchcraft — one term used by a major studio — now, suddenly it’s like, “Oh, actually, can you help us here?” A lot of our competitors have in the last couple months come out with sort of remote systems to pitch to customers in the event we get a second spike, which is looking likely, I think. But they’re not as comprehensive as ours, because we’ve been doing it for three or four years longer.
SIGNIANT: Have you seen a mind shift with clients and customers, especially the larger ones that cloud workflows and remote working is not only is it possible in a crisis but will likely a viable, longterm workflow?
JULIAN DAY: Overall, yes we have. I think some of them are waiting to go back to doing it the old-fashioned way, which is fine. That’s how they’ve been doing it for a long time. It works. But we have seen some of the majors who are a little bit suspicious of it now saying, “This is actually possible, and we definitely want to have this in our vendor mix, from a business continuity standpoint. We need to have some cloud systems and the people that offer those on our supplier base.”
SIGNIANT: Do you see this period as a abrupt change moment or more of an acceleration, or how would you describe this moment in the industry?
JULIAN DAY: It depends how it pans out over the next couple of months. Chances are there’s going to be an up-swing in illnesses and deaths. And if that’s the case, and we’re locked down for a lot longer, then I think it will certainly be a change, but more people are used to working from home. I think companies are now potentially happier to let people work from home because they see they can work, and they see the people are, essentially, better motivated.
But I’ve heard as well, [some facilities] weren’t going to be bringing back more than half of the people, simply because then they cut down on their security costs, their energy costs, catering. All sorts of stuff will be massively reduced if they don’t have to have everyone on site. So I think it will be a big change.
SIGNIANT: If the pandemic continues indefinitly, what do you have to change or augment for your business? Where do you see the gaps that will have to be filled if this continues longer?
JULIAN DAY: Personally, I think where ZOO is placed there’s not too much we need to do. I mean, we need to onboard a lot more talent and encourage them to have home setups and home studios, especially voiceover artists, so they have a decent space in which to work. Making sure the voice community is able to work from home because they’re not used to it will be a challenge, but it will be important.
What is more going to be a challenge is the production side of the business. If you can’t shoot stuff, then we’re not going to be able to localize it. Being able to produce content on the same level, in the same way is going to be tricky. For example, one of the big soap operas here, Coronation Street, they said they’re starting production again but not with any of the older characters.
SIGNIANT: With the return to work that’s starting to happen in the UK and in the US, what does your return to work look like?
JULIAN DAY: There will be more working from home, almost shift work, so some people in, some people not. Regular cleaning of the offices are going to have to happen. So, rather than cleaners coming overnight, you have people during the day constantly cleaning. Obviously, we’re going to have to socially distance within the office. In London, we could easily socially distance in the office. There’s enough space for the crew that we have.
The problem for us is public transport. People are very nervous about traveling, going back onto the tubes and the buses, because that’s potentially where everyone’s crowded in. There’s lots of metal surfaces, and that could be an issue. I ride a motorbike. I can get on the bike, and I don’t see anyone in the office, so it’s been very safe and quite pleasant. But I think people are generally concerned that it’s not so much being in the office as such as an issue, but getting to and from work. Right now, our view is that we’re not going to be going back in any meaningful way until the end of July at the earliest, in London anyway.
SIGNIANT: Is it the right time to start opening up?
JULIAN DAY: No.
JULIAN DAY: I mean, as much as I’d love to, I think it’s a bit too early, to be honest. It’s so hard to tell. It’s very confused messaging that’s out there.
SIGNIANT: Does your staff share that feeling as well?
JULIAN DAY: Yes, I think they do. I think everyone would like to get back to work. I actually had my first meeting last week with a real person for the first time in two and a half months. A socially distanced meeting, but it was lovely to see someone in the flesh rather than just on the screen. We had to take separate lifts up to his office or his facility because the lifts were too small to get the social distance in, and we couldn’t shake hands and we couldn’t go for pint afterwards because all the pubs are shut. It was good to do it. But that’s the only one I’ve had and the only one I’ve got on the horizon. Everything else is online.
SIGNIANT: Everything is online right now. What about trade shows like NAB and IBC? Do they still need to happen after all of this? Are they no longer needed because we can interact remotely?
JULIAN DAY: I don’t think so. I think people do want to do that, and not just because it’s Vegas and Amsterdam, but to see things up close and see the whites of people’s eyes and talk. How it’s going to happen with social distancing I don’t know, but hopefully we’ll sort it out and they’ll be back.
SIGNIANT: Knowing what you know now, what do you wish you could have advised yourself back in January or February to prepare for this?
JULIAN DAY: I’d say, “Get all your marketing and stuff in place.” Get ready so you can do as much as you can when everyone’s panicking. Because once it happened, and we saw that people actually really wanted our services, that there was the need, we had to develop the supporting marketing stuff and get it out there. Whereas, we should’ve had it ready. Everyone was caught on the hop there. Now, our competitors, and ourselves, are trying to make sure everybody knows we have the capabilities to handle such an event again.
SIGNIANT: The pandemic brings new considerations to business continuity planning. Does this change what you have to think about for the future, even though it seems remote or unlikely or even a bit fantasy, are you having to change your plans?
JULIAN DAY: From a sole operational standpoint, not really. We adopted the cloud very early on and we’ve made it central to our operation right from the get-go. This has just proved to people what we had been banging on about the last seven years actually makes sense. So far, I think we’re okay. But if it’s long-term; if new shows aren’t being made, it could have an impact on revenues, on volumes. But from an operational standpoint, no, I think we’re in a good place, because we’ve always been cloud-based. It’s not business continuity, it’s business as usual for ZOO.
SIGNIANT: Is there anything your peers would find valuable to know from your experience?
JULIAN DAY: Having a cloud infrastructure should be standard. It should be front and central in your planning, basing your whole business in the cloud from an operational standpoint. Everybody should be doing that. The fact that you can get all of all the editing tools in the cloud; that you’ve got Signiant so you can send stuff around. You should have all your project management in the cloud. Not just from a pandemic point of view but also from a infrastructure cost and efficiency point of view. Our Los Angeles team, when they login, they just pick up where London or Sheffield leave off. It’s all centralized. There’s very little handover required. Everyone can see. Everything is very transparent, so you can have true 24/7 operation without a lot of headache if you do everything centrally.
So you should adopt a cloud; you shouldn’t be reliant on on-premises hardware anymore. You don’t need to. If you’re going to go back to doing everything on premises, relying on bricks and mortar, I think that will be folly.
This interview was edited and condensed for clarity.