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Nick Haworth, Head of Technology Studios, ITV

For every broadcaster and media company, promos are an essential tool in attracting and retaining audiences. We spoke to Nick Haworth, Head of Technology, Studios at ITV – the UK’s largest commercial broadcaster – about an ambitious project he has recently helmed to automate the production workflow for the 1000+ programme promotions the organization produces every month. IABM member Pixel Power’s Factory graphics engine is at the heart of ITV Phoenix – the name given to the end-to-end, automated campaign production workflow now successfully implemented by ITV.

Why does ITV have to produce so many campaigns every month?

“ITV has seven linear broadcast channels in the UK– six free-to-air and a pay channel on the Sky platform. In addition, ITV delivers its content across multiple platforms. This is either through our over-the-top service the ITV Hub, available on 30 platforms including ITV’s website (itv.com), pay providers such as Virgin and Sky, or through direct content deals with services such as Amazon, Apple iTunes and Netflix. Our marketing campaigns have to cover all these outlets.

“On average, we promote around 35 different programmes a month. Our creative team produces a ‘master’ for each one, then a number of second-level versions of it – 10, 20, 30 and 40 second variants for example. Each variant then needs to be further versioned for different slots –’tomorrow’, ‘tonight’, ‘coming up’, ‘next’ etc. As a result, the number of assets we actually have to deliver is around 1000 per month, each with six or seven different variables.”

Do promos also vary by region or are they the same across all areas?

“We produce practically all the promos carried by ITV and UTV channels here in our South Bank facility in London. We also produce ‘blank’ versions of some of the creative for STV (Scotland) and ITV Choice (Hong Kong). We also transmit some regional programming for Wales, Northern Ireland and the Channel Islands and where these occasionally opt out, they produce their own local promos.”

What drove the need for a new production workflow?

“Producing these multiple versions was a tremendous drag on the time of the creative teams – as well as being wasteful of their talent by spending so much time doing mundane versioning rather than original creative work. The process was also wasteful because our marketing department wasn’t able to check them before all the work had been done. So, if there was a change required, the creative teams had to go through the whole versioning process again.”

What were the requirements the new workflow had to meet and how did you set about creating it?

“It was clear that we needed to overhaul the whole promo production process to take away the pain, so we set about finding a technology that could automate it for us. However, there was no single solution on the market that could do everything we wanted. We needed a workflow that supported both broadcast and all our other outlets based around a single source of truth, where our marketing department can input their requirement up front, then check the creative has all the right information before the production process begins. And of course it needed to take the laborious versioning process away from the creative teams to free them up for more creative work. We named the project ITV Phoenix.

“Pixel Power’s Factory had all the automation and versioning tools we needed, so we chose that as the backbone of ITV Phoenix, and then brought in other partners to work together to develop the complete system that we had been unable to buy off the shelf. To maximize the effectiveness of Factory across the team, the project partners developed an interface to Factory that could be shared between marketing, media planning and creative staff – allowing all to work from the single source of truth – in our case, that is the end-board for each promo. Effectively this is the last few frames of each promotion which contain the programme name, when it’s coming up, what channel (for cross-promotion), timing, sponsor’s name etc.”

How does the new process work?

“Media planning creates the placeholder for a promo and selects the end-board from a set of templates which contains all the unique information for that promo. Never before have the media planning team been able to review and sign off the end boards before the creatives begin their work. This is a huge improvement in workflow and one that I think many broadcasters would be keen to implement. Every promo is also previewed when creative work and versioning is completed. This can be done remotely on an iPhone if necessary – for example, if there is a late change that occurs after staff have gone home, they can still review it wherever they are and send it on to transmission.

“It’s the versioning that’s key to accuracy – making each promo correctly and also ensuring that it goes in the schedule in the right place. Our media planners put the data into Factory via Phoenix at the start of the creation of a new promo, and own it all the way through production. This accountability – based around the end-board that is created at the start of production – removes the possibility of someone down the line making an error.

“Alongside the linear broadcast channel campaigns, there are versions for our VoD channel (ITV Hub) and all the different social media channels all require different formats. The system allows us to set up automatic transcoding for every outlet in the right format.”

How did roll-out of ITV Phoenix go?

“Smoothly! We went live with the first stage of ITV Phoenix in September 2016– this covered the planning and delivery of the campaigns. We then went live with the automated versioning, QC and the visual preview of end-boards early in 2017, followed by automated archiving.

“Archiving is important – campaigns are often not ‘here today and gone tomorrow’. A programme first shown on the ITV main channel may be retransmitted on, say, ITV3 a year later or sold to another broadcaster overseas, for example. The system allows us to quickly find the promo and make any changes required to promote the new airing.”

What improvements have you seen since Factory and Phoenix went live?

“The biggest improvement is in the lives of the people in our promo production operation. Media planners’ lives have become easier – they can visualize the work they do and can make bulk changes quickly and easily too; ITV Phoenix and Factory allow them to focus on strategic media planning. For marketing, it allows them to preview the campaigns on their iPhones and send them to transmission from wherever they are. And for the creative teams, they get to spend more time being creative; there are always more channels to reach in the ever-expanding media universe so they will be just as busy – but much more creatively productive.”

This has been a complex project. How has it been working with Pixel Power?

“We worked closely with Pixel Power throughout the planning and commissioning of Phoenix, which is essentially a bespoke UI for Factory, and they gave us a lot help and support to make it all happen. We have weekly project meetings on Google Hangout with all the companies involved, and we have together successfully very nearly completed a complex project – the final phase will be finished in November – on schedule. Pixel Power has met our expectations and those of the business – in fact, the project has delivered beyond our original requirements – the mobile approval was not in the original scope, for example. Most of all, we’ve delighted our users.”

Arts, business and technology – the right tools for the job

If you were to write a person specification for someone to understand and work with creative people while taking advantage of cutting edge technology to meet a pressing business need, then Nick Haworth would fit the bill perfectly. Nick started his television career at ITN becoming a TV news programme editor, and while there, studied for an MBA in his spare time. He then moved into consultancy for ITN and spent a year in Greece helping a broadcaster set up its TV news operation –training the staff in news production and putting the operational systems in place. Nick then dived into the early days of online TV with ITV in 2006, and in 2011 moved into a technical role at ITV as a bridge between programme makers and technology –”joining the dots to support them with technology relevant to their requirements” as he puts it. Asked what’s next on his list after Phoenix, Nick is understandably coy – but expect to read about another innovative application of technology in the service of creativity soon!

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