Media shops reaping net benefits

In economy dogged by pandemic disruptions, local firms thrive online

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When the pandemic hit. Ben Buckwold was nervous and didn’t know what was going to happen to his Winnipeg educational publishing company, ESL Library.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 14/08/2020 (835 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

When the pandemic hit. Ben Buckwold was nervous and didn’t know what was going to happen to his Winnipeg educational publishing company, ESL Library.

For most of its nearly 20 years in business the 28-person operation emailed its English-language training materials in PDF form to about 10,000 ESL schools around the world, which would then print and photo-copy the content for students.

But with schools closing and so much uncertainty about what the classroom scenario would look like in the medium term, continuing to get the company’s content into the hands of the schools was not going to be so straightforward anymore.

RUTH BONNEVILLE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Ben Buckwold, founder and CEO of ESL Library, says he and his team had to scramble to implement its interactive software platform, but their effort has paid off big in the COVID-19 era.

The company had been working on creating interactive digital tools, but that was for sometime in the future.

So Buckwold and his team had to scramble.

“It (creating an interactive software platform) was something that had planned to be developed in a year or two and suddenly it had to be done over a period of a few months,” he said. “Our team came together really well and we were able to deploy these innovative new features.”

At the same time, what had once been seen as a tough sell — to convince the schools to make the switch to an online interactive platform — also became a lot easier during the pandemic.

Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic it took two years to get 100,000 homework assignments done online. In the last four months, there’s been more than seven million completed.

So far things have gone very well for ESL Library. In addition to rapidly deploying a research and development project more and more school divisions are seeking out its interactive digital media (IDM) solution.

ESL Library is one of a number of digital media shops in Winnipeg which have leveraged their technology know-how and market awareness to remain relevant and, in some significant cases, add staff and grow during the lockdown.

In some cases the pandemic has been coincidental to the growth. But what isn’t a fluke is that while live-action film and video production has almost shut down, animation and computer-generated content production has not broken stride.

Doug Darling, president and CEO of Tripwire Media Group, said during normal times his corporate video production company would do an equal amount of live action and animation work. But during the past five months several jobs switched to animation and it eventually allowed Darling to hire back the three production people who had to be laid off when the initial shutdown occurred.

Coincidental to the unprecedented pause in the global economy, Tripwire completed a large animation project for popular social media company TikTok, featuring 12 different pieces that explain a new advertising platform the site has in the works. (The geopolitical spat the Chinese-owned site currently finds itself in has delayed the rollout of the program.)

Among other things, that kind of project is an example of another phenomenon that makes the IDM world particularly able to adapt. On the TikTok work, Darling collaborated with people in San Francisco, New York and Beijing.

“It was a great process,” he said. “Everyone we talked to was very professional and great to work with.”

Liz Pelton, the business development manager for New Media Manitoba, the industry association, said the organization has been working hard to stay connected with its members and do what it can so that they not only survive but can get positioned for growth.

“What we have seen is a very fluid environment,” she said. “What we are also seeing is that they really are weathering the storm.”

Some companies are doing much more than that. Flipside XR has just completed a project with an Emmy Award-winning animation production company from Los Angeles which utilized Flipside’s technology that allows for real-time animation production in virtual reality.

Les Klassen, the CEO of Flipside (which grew out of a previous virtual reality production company called Campfire Union) said the pandemic did not necessarily create the opportunity for his company to work with the Hollywood studio, but the timing of what could be a significant breakthrough for the technology has put it in great demand.

“I just got off a call with Dreamworks and NBC Universal has been calling,” Klassen said.”We’re getting calls left and right.”

Among other things Flipside’s technology can allow Klassen to direct a live production with actors in several different locations while they are all immersed in the same digital environment.

In addition to the fact that IDM companies are already working with the kind of tools that are perfectly suited for remote collaboration — ESL Library closed its offices in mid-March and Buckwold said it’s likely the company will not reopen the office preferring to continue working remotely with productivity up — the tools are in great demand.

Mobile app developer Tactica has been hiring and has its staff up to 22 people. Digital mobile applications for the health-care sector and many others are on the rise.

Kevin Glasier, the founder and CEO of Tactica said, “I definitely wish the pandemic has not happened and if I could press a button and make it go away I would. But at the same time our company is growing and we are seeing opportunity out there.”

martin.cash@freepress.mb.ca

Martin Cash

Martin Cash
Reporter

Martin Cash has been writing a column and business news at the Free Press since 1989. Over those years he’s written through a number of business cycles and the rise and fall (and rise) in fortunes of many local businesses.

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