Platforms like Instagram have enabled both individuals and brands to create compelling content 24/7 - though if you ask us, there are a few creators in particular who have paved the way for true innovation. Today's PLANOLEADER story touches more on this and features our interview with Visual Country's CEO, Amber Lee. From bright animated films to beautiful stop-motion campaigns, Amber and her co-founder Meagan Cignoli have revolutionized the way we approach video content, and furthermore, have proven that it has immense value across a broad range of industries. With the combined experience of their dynamic team and their impressive (and growing) client roster, we sat down with Amber to chat more about the evolution of Visual Country, their love of video and where they hope to take the company next. Read on for more of Amber's insight and for a look into their spacious Lower East Side studio.
Please introduce yourself!
Hi! I'm Amber Lee, CEO of Visual Country, a creative production agency in NYC that creates videos, films, photography, and digital content for global brands. Outside of Visual Country, I spend my days thinking a lot about the business. It's really a 24/7 kind of job, but when I am able to pry my hands away from my phone and my mind away from work, I have a habit of diving deep into random hobbies, like learning how to recreate a McDonald's cheeseburger from scratch, including homemade American cheese, bun and patty (hint: dehydrated onions are critical for successful replication), rollerblading to Coney Island and back just to indulge in a hot dog from Nathan's, or nights in with friends making homemade pasta. Cooking is a big passion of mine. That and binge watching cop shows on Netflix... anything with lawyers, cops or the FBI, I'm game.
Give us an overview of your digital history. Prior to Visual Country what were you up to professionally, what role did digital play in your job description and what have been some notable moments throughout your career so far?
I have always been a nerd for technology and the Internet. I went to business school in Canada, and started at Inbev right out of University in their Global Management Trainee program, which allowed me to travel for months across the world and learn everything from the science of brewing to global brand management to how to drive a transport truck at 5 am to deliver beer to vendors. I quickly learned through that experience that beer was not my thing and set my sights on NYC to enter the world of advertising and tech. In New York, I worked at various startups (Oddcast + Tremor Video), started my own blog platform and agency, and most recently prior to founding Visual County with Meagan Cignoli, I worked for eBay launching their same-day delivery service, eBay Now, on the east coast. Through all of my roles, digital played a key part, both from an operations standpoint and from a marketing point of view — to build demand for the business. Social media has been particularly instrumental in building Visual Country. We help brands create content for social and digital, producing three videos per day on average, in addition to other forms of content. But beyond the work itself, social is also how we market our own business and the main way our clients discover us. Without platforms like Instagram, Twitter, Vine, and Facebook, I don't think we would be doing what we do.
How would you describe your days at Visual Country and what have been some of the biggest positive changes you've seen within the industry over the last few years?
We started Visual Country almost four years ago now and a lot has changed in that time. When we started the company, Meagan and I were working out of our apartment in Brooklyn. We got rid of all our furniture and turned our living room and the second bedroom into a studio and office. Every inch of that place was covered in seamless, lights and crafting materials. We had two employees working from whatever table they could turn into a desk, and we did everything; we were the director, accountant, lawyer, account manager, marketing manager, cleaning crew—we did it all. No job was too big or too small. We quickly moved our business to the city and grew the team. After outgrowing our first proper studio in Manhattan, we moved into an even larger space earlier this year located in the Lower East Side, where we now have a team of over 20 talented employees that help produce each campaign and create amazing content for a long list of household brands we are fortunate enough to call our clients. Today, I focus mainly on managing the business side; working with the account team, talking to clients, putting together estimates and contracts and ensuring our operations are running smoothly, and Meagan manages the creative side. We still wear a lot of hats, but I'm slowly handing off pieces of my role to new members of the team so I can continue to focus on growth and where we want to be in the future... and spend more time perfecting that cheeseburger. The advertising industry continues to increase its reliance on digital content and video, which is wonderful as that's where we shine.
What role does planning play in your profession overall and based on what you've learned so far what are your tips for those who may be struggling to streamline their content/strategy?
Planning is critical to our business. We have created thousands of pieces of content for over 250 brands in less than four years time. A backbone of our business is scheduling, whether managing team schedules or planning out the editorial calendar for our social channels. Our ability to schedule our team and projects efficiently has been fundamental to our success. We create a lot of content for our channels that are not branded in order to keep our engagement high and continue to grow and reach new audiences. We don't create for the sake of creating; each piece has a specific goal in mind. Without strong planning and a solid strategy of what you are producing, you can spend a lot of time and money and not get much out of it in the end.
"Our ability to schedule our team & projects efficiently has been fundamental to our success."
Top Three Tips:
1. Have a plan - Even for our personal work we go through the same process as we would for a brand that has hired us. We write treatments, they go through approvals and revisions and we have a specific timeline and budget in mind for each piece.
2. Create Brand Guidelines - Understand your brand image and message, and create content that fits your feed.
3. Quality over quantity - Post frequently, but don't post for the sake of posting. And don't overextend yourself. Pick the platforms that are best aligned with your brand and audience and focus heavily on them. You don't have to be on every platform that exists.
Is there any one project that Visual Country has worked on so far that has resonated with you? What can we expect to see from you and the team in the coming months?
We have worked across every vertical out there: food, fashion, automotive, finance, tech, entertainment and everything in between. I am always excited to work with tech brands like Twitter, Instagram, and Google, but I'm not really partial to any one industry or category. I think every brand has an interesting story to communicate and can create cool content to tell it. We are best known for our stop-motion work but have been doing a lot more 4K live action projects this year for digital and TV. I'm excited to explore more applications of video for point-of-sale and to produce longer-form content. We have our first short film coming out this fall for Savannah College of Art & Design (SCAD), which I am particularly excited to release to the world and I think showcases a different style than most of our other work. We are always looking for new formats and styles of content, often mixing mediums to create something unique.
What is it about working with video excites you and why do you think it is the best medium for a brand to tell its story? Do you have any best practices you can share with younger brands who are looking to experiment with video on Instagram or Vine?
I love video because there are so few boundaries. You can create a piece of content a few seconds long that is super compelling and effective or something that is minutes or hours long and equally as effective. Agencies like ours live and breathe video and a lot of brands find it advantageous to work with partners who count video as a main focus. While most of our clients are larger, partnering is equally as important for small brands, so you can focus on running your business and not get too distracted by something that isn't your core strength. Video is also wonderful because every brand, large or small, can participate on some level—whether using an iPhone or the most expensive equipment.
How do both photography and video motivate you to express yourself creatively? When you're outside of the office what can we find you taking photos/videos of?
I take a lot of pictures of my dogs. I can't help it; they are just too darn cute! That and food I've made or places I'm traveling. And of course, who can help but take a good old selfie once in a while...it happens to the best of us.