Vox Creative’s Head of Production on dreaming of his name in credits, applying an editorial mindset to branded content and stumbling into publishing
One of the most exciting things about covering the industry right now is the different kinds of companies popping up, working in new ways and making some seriously interesting work. Vox Creative is the content studio for the very modern media group Vox Media (it includes such brands as Polygon, The Verge, Eater and of course, Vox), and although it was only founded in 2014 it’s quickly evolved into a sophisticated branded content agency that leverages its audience insights and editorial expertise to create clever stuff for the likes of Xbox, MailChimp and Jeep.
And Greg T. Gordon is the chap who makes all that clever stuff happen. A lifelong film nut, filmmaking has been his calling for a very long time. But while he’s worked for some really exciting online media platforms, like the pioneering CollegeHumor.com and Vox Media’s sports platform SB Nation, getting involved in the world of Internet content happened by accident rather than design. These days he’s juggling projects as diverse as opening a museum, documenting amazing food innovations and even making fun of branded content itself (very meta!). LBB’s Laura Swinton picked Greg’s brains to learn more about his career and the world of Vox Creative.
LBB> What was it about production that drew you to it?
GTG> I was always into production, even as a little kid. It started with a fascination with acting and working with actors. I’d get my family and my friends to act out stories with me. When I got to college, I made films with larger crews, and that experience — working with talented people who shared my passion — was addictive.
I think I’ll always chase the high of having an idea and seeing it take shape through the collaborative process.
LBB> What kind of kid were you? Were there any clues that you were destined for production?
GTG> I was an early filmmaker. I made plays with my brother, then I picked up a camera and made shorts where I set up the camera, played out the scene, then cut. I got so frustrated because I didn’t understand why it didn’t look like a movie. After some research, I learned that I had to cover a scene from multiple angles. I did that and was left with tons of footage, so then I learned to edit (iMovie 2 and then Final Cut Pro 3). By 8th grade, I knew I wanted to make movies and, in 9th grade, I was doing summer film programs. From 10th grade on, I was a freelance filmmaker making promo videos for whoever would hire me. My portfolio for college applications was a short film.
I was also an early film lover. I went to movies with my family constantly. My aunt conditioned me to stay through credits. One time she even leaned over and whispered to me: “If you want, that could be your name up there one day”.
LBB> You’ve worked with a lot of online media organisations – platforms that are working in a different way to either traditional media organisations or indeed agencies. How did you get involved in that area? Was it something you sought out or did you originally have something more traditional in mind when you were starting your career?
GTG> I purely stumbled into media and publishing. When I graduated film school, I would make videos for whoever would let me. I didn’t pay any attention to what I was doing, I was just focused on doing work, learning more, and becoming a professional. After three to four years of working like that, I took a step back and realised: wow, everything I do is on the Internet. Maybe this is where I can make a career. That was the point where I stopped saying “I want to be a filmmaker” and started saying “I want to make things that matter most to people”. It occurred to me that new platforms and the Internet was where the best storytelling would eventually end up.
LBB> So here’s a debate about producing that I can never quite make my mind up about and I’m curious about your thoughts on it: in an era of proliferating formats and technologies, is it more important to develop specialisms or is producing a skill and mindset that’s so flexible that a good producer is one who can produce something and solve problems across any format/media?
GTG> I believe it’s the latter. A good producer — who can take a good idea for a story and materialize it — should be able to do that for any platform. Certain mediums have a learning curve, but a good producer should also be a quick study.
LBB> When was Vox Creative founded and how has it evolved?
GTG> Vox Creative was founded in 2014 as a small group (roughly five people). It started off with us pitching crazy custom projects in a silo, winning some, and making them as best we could. We weren’t strategic but we were doing pretty work. We’ve since evolved dramatically to be an intelligent content studio.
We make content that is additive to the world, that has depth, and is something we would want to share. We are informed by data and by audience insights, but not driven by them. We work with our leaders of editorial brands to understand what they do well, and what we can replicate with advertisers. We have a thorough work process to ensure smooth production and good creative whether we’re doing two things or 30 things at once (it’s usually the latter).
LBB> How does the team at Vox Creative work with the talents at the other Vox Media brands?
GTG> We work together from a best practice sharing standpoint. The Explainer Studio is a prime example of this. Our friends at Vox have made arguably the strongest news brand on YouTube due almost entirely to their Explainer format. We all realized that this can be a valuable format to advertisers, so we all worked together to set up a studio that mirrors the methodology and intent of our editorial team. Beyond this kind of collaboration, our editorial teams are not involved in the creation of branded content.
LBB> I’d guess that some brands might be a bit unused to working with an editorial mindset, which is all about following the most interesting story and which can require you to give up a bit of control… do brands need a bit of hand-holding through that or are they quite used to that way of working?
GTG> This varies from client to client, as many have different definitions of branded content. Some clients come to us for our audience and as such, guide us with deference. They want us to be editorial on behalf of their brand and are comfortable with that process being messy or less transparent at times. The more common case is clients who come to us looking for production quality, and amplification of their creative platform. This still yields very good work, but it changes our work process. We find ourselves often making detailed previz materials, hosting clients on set and in edit, and reviewing a cut many times — steps that are common for a creative agency but less common for an editorial publisher.
As a result, we’ve identified a process that allows us to be collaborative like an agency but maintain an editorial soul.
LBB> What Vox Creative brand collaboration projects are you proudest of and why?
GTG> Here are a few that stand out as big steps in my own growth and the growth of Vox Creative:
We made fun of branded content.
This is an old project but still one of my favorites. We partnered up with Microsoft to help promote Sunset Overdrive, a new Xbox game. We found a weapons maker who makes real life replicas of the game’s bizarre weapons. We made a profile on him, but made fun of the profile format that we were all so used to creating. The resulting video was a hit with audiences and the client, and one of the first times that I felt branded content can be fun and personally satisfying.
We opened a museum.
In 2015, we partnered with Infiniti to help them enter the food and dining world with authority. To do that, we brought Infiniti, Eater, and the Museum of Food and Drink together to launch MOFAD Lab
, the organization’s first ever museum space. We helped the MOFAD team build their first-ever exhibition, created around 60 pieces of content around that theme, and created an interactive “Car VR” installation in the museum featuring the Infiniti Q50. We’ve run this project for two years.
We told stories of food innovation our way. We’re working on a project right now with Capital One, who came to us to help launch their new Savor Rewards credit card (which gives rewards on dining and food shopping). This was a client who came to us because we are (via Eater) the experts in dining and food innovation, so they were happy for us to bring our voice to the table. The result is a series of wildly successful videos, my favorite being this one
about a Native American group reviving indigenous ingredients reeducating the Native American communities on how to bring back local, healthy, and sustainable food.
LBB> I see you produced an interview with President Obama! In terms of working with VIPs I imagine that’s about as big as you get. What was that project like to work on? What sort of extra bits are involved when you’re working with someone like that?
GTG> Disclaimer -- I helped produce as a consulting favor, but producing for editorial teams is not part of Vox Creative’s charter.
I can confidently say that interviewing the president in the White House is WAY easier to produce than almost any piece of branded content. The White House staff has no ego, they are tough but fair (my favorite kind of people), they have no interest (or ability to) inform our creative/editorial direction, and they are used to having crews film there. Talent was on time and professional. If there was one challenge, it was convincing the White House that we should bring in all this material to set Ezra Klein/Matt Yglesias and the President in a black environment, not in a White House environment.
LBB> As Head of Production, what do you think the key is to getting the best out of your team?
GTG> Hire the best people you can. Hire people who can create and produce things on their own, and give them the chance to do that when possible. Give credit to them and take blame for missteps. You look like a genius to the outside world but you’re really just working with people who are excellent at their job.
LBB> Over your career, what’s the craziest production challenge you have faced and how did you overcome it?
GTG> When I was producing a low budget feature we had to steal a lot of locations. We got permission from someone to let us film in their apartment, but we didn’t get permission from the co-op board. We had to film for five days and on day three the cops came to shut us down, so we did the following:
- Ran interference with the cops as long as we could
- Rewrote certain scenes to be filmed elsewhere
- Rescheduled to get the literal climax of the movie in the can while I’m pleading with cops outside the set
We somehow made it work.
LBB> Is there any kind of production challenge or project that you haven’t had a chance to have a go at that you’d like to work on?
GTG> I want to make TV shows next, that would be a new and exciting opportunity.
LBB> Outside of work, what do you get up to? What do you just really enjoy doing?
You’ve also been involved in SRSLY, a comedy channel. How did you get involved in that, and what did you learn from the process in setting up and growing an independent Youtube channel?
GTG> Ah, SRSLY! I started that with Alex Fiber and Danielle Gibson back in 2011. It was Broad City and Girls before either of those came out. We had some early success, and it was a great way to mess around and subsequently get paid/recognized for the work. While we run them on YouTube now, we made it as a Vimeo show. Since we started in 2011, YouTube wasn’t yet a place where creators would gravitate.
I like putting all of my creative and work efforts to Vox Media, so I don’t really take on side projects. I mostly eat at Eater approved restaurants, watch movies, and catch football games outside of work. It’s pretty basic.