Head of Pi Studios on his second generation immigrant perspective, the role of curation in the Internet age and the key to meaningful branded content
Head of Pi Studios Ravi Amaratunga Hitchcock has a pretty enviable CV for any culture junkie. Born and raised in the UK, he’s worked at a succession of media companies just as they were creating arguably their most pioneering content, from Channel 4 to Dazed to VICE. He was one of the major moving forces behind Channel 4’s late night arts strand Random Acts, launched and ran Dazed Media's video division and later oversaw all international video programming and strategy for fashion and style culture channels in the VICE network, including i-D and its sister lifestyle site Amuse.
LBB’s Alex Reeves caught up with Ravi to find out how he’s managed to ride this wave of cultural relevance all the way from traditional broadcast media to the cutting edge of branded content.
LBB> Where did you grow up and what was your childhood like there?
Ravi> I was born in Southampton but grew up in Cambridge. My parents were academics. They’d moved over from Sri Lanka in the ‘70s and went to do their post grads at Cambridge and ended up staying there for my dad’s job.
It was the ‘80s and it was a really weird time to be a first-generation immigrant family in the UK. It was great and weird in equal measure.
I don’t mean to stereotype but my experience, at least, of Asian parents is very much a ‘succeed at school’ kind of vibe. They didn’t really care about extracurricular activities but were driven by exam results at all costs. My dad’s a professor of engineering and my mum’s a lawyer so it’s very matter of fact. Definitely not artsy. If I’d told them I’d end up in film and the creative industries they’d have scrunched their faces up. They still do, actually!
LBB> I read that growing up as a British Asian, you felt a particular power in making people understand your point of view. Is that something that's stayed with you?
Ravi> It’s something that’s been true throughout my life. When you’re growing up second generation Asian in Britain, you’re constantly trying to convince people of your viewpoint, whether it’s your parents who don’t really understand why you’re interested in certain things or whether you’re trying to make friends and get them to see your viewpoint. Right from day dot, my whole existence was about empathy and convincing people to see my point of view. So when you grow up and experience that empathy and the power of film to communicate that through things that you watched. There weren’t many things with brown people in necessarily but there were amazing pieces of filmmaking that I’d connect with. That made me realise the power of mass communications. From a very young age I watched a lot of TV and film and my parents thought I had some kind of problem. But it worked out fine!
I realised this has a certain power and no matter what industry I’ve been in I’ve followed where audiences have gone with a really focused desire to take individual stories that have the power to change the way people view their lives. And it’s a real privilege to make that come true.
The fact that I’m a British Asian naturally influenced that. I think it helped me not only understand my own point of view, but other people who come to me with ideas.
When I was at Channel 4 we did a lot of work with the Paralympics and a lot of the early programming around trans rights as well. It doesn’t mean that I understood exactly what someone was going through, but the importance of knowing to give someone a platform to say their piece is incredibly powerful to give to someone. Being from a minority background means you understand the importance and the responsibility that comes with that.
LBB> What were your first experiences of working in the creative industries? I read that you started out writing.
Ravi> At school I did very bad play and film writing. I also did a bit of journalism as well working for the uni newspaper. I was film editor there. I did amateur filmmaking and realised that I was not a very good director very early on, but realised who was. But I guess my first jobs were in feature films, so I was doing a bit of script editing and development. I wouldn't call myself a writer at any point. Maybe aspiring but I was never any good.
I went to Cambridge so it’s quite a pretentious university. It gives you really pretentious ambitions. I was sure I was going to become an amazing director and watched loads of arthouse films. I knew the history of what great directors should be but as soon as I came out of the gates after university, realised I wasn't one. I think it took some self reflection to know early on that I didn’t actually have the skillset, vision or any way of imparting it. But being in the feature film industry and meeting a lot of really interesting directors made me realise that quite early on. Which probably saved me a lot of time.
LBB> How did you get into the world of TV? Any particularly memorable experiences from early in your career?
Ravi> My first running job was a really interesting one. It was with the ex-head of BBC Film at the time who had just started his own production company, David Thompson. He was incredibly well connected and I just completely landed on my feet. My second day in the job I was wearing terrible jeans and a t-shirt and he had an invite to the opening of the London Film Festival. It was a black tie event. He somehow snuck me into the Ritz or something wearing this awful clothing and introduced me to Dev Patel and Danny Boyle. I thought, ‘This is amazing! Is this the rest of my life?’
LBB> Was that around Slumdog Millionaire?
Ravi> Yeah. Slumdog Millionaire was the opening film that year so it was an amazing moment. He knew a lot of the execs who made that happen. That whole industry is a very champagne lifestyle, living on empty, so you get these amazing moments but then the hard drudge of trying to find a gem.
You have to work really hard at that entry level. Also the industry is so competitive because there are so many people trying to make great entertainment on that level. The churn of great ideas is so much and lots of brilliant ideas never get made. So that was eye opening from my young perspective.
LBB> Fast forward to when you were at Channel 4. You took a lead role in Random Acts - what did you love most about that?
Ravi> It was amazing. It was my big break to be honest. I was a 25-year-old kid who just got given a chance but I was so plugged into what was happening online and all the different subcultures within the arts that were happening and there was no one within the building who could bring those different partners in. The amazing thing is it gave a way in for emerging filmmakers and also emerging disciplines to have the badge of a Channel 4 thing, giving a leg up to different directors who’ve gone on to do fantastic things. You need strands like that.
LBB> It’s interesting because in an age where there were oceans of content out there online, you as Channel 4 were able to be a curator.
Ravi> Yeah. Curation’s really important. Also, no matter how many million views you get, being selected for a film festival or having something that tells people that this is good is always a mark of respect and helpful in furthering your career.
We did partnerships with the likes of Vice and Warp at quite early stages. I think it really helped them grow in their TV ventures. It was a really exciting time.
LBB> That explains how you ended up working at platforms like Dazed and then Vice then. It’s all a similar area.
Ravi> I started off super traditional in feature film and then TV. Then I saw this amazing stuff happening at breakneck speed because everything in industries like TV takes a long time to sign off. I was naturally attracted to that. Both at Dazed and Vice I was introduced to branded content, seeing a different business model in terms of how brands were fulfilling the role of what the Arts Council or BFI used to do, which is support different film endeavours. That was when the penny dropped that it would be really interesting to work with brands in a way that they could see the long term cultural benefit that they could have.
The frustration at Dazed and Vice was that we were being brought in as a media partner right at the end of that conversation, rather than at the start with strategy and what a creative agency would normally do. That’s when it all started to make sense, combining these different experiences to create a new business model, which is what Pi Studios is all about.
LBB> As a Brit, what was it like moving to Amsterdam to set up Pi Studios? What was behind that decision and what was the experience like?
Ravi> The day my wife and I decided to move was the day Brexit happened. We were thinking we didn’t know how long our passports would allow us to do this, so let’s go on an adventure to Amsterdam.
Prior to that I had absolutely no desire to go into advertising full time. I saw it as one of the many different feathers that were part of the cap you wear as a publisher. But it was really the guys at WE ARE Pi, the agency, who wanted to move into this space interestingly. It felt like a really entrepreneurial moment to bring my experience and theirs to venture into something a bit new.
They were based in Amsterdam. Europe seemed like a very interesting place to go when your country’s cutting itself off from the world.
Also, I’d mostly been working with UK brands or marketing managers or broadcasters, so the ability to scale that up to something more international was interesting.
LBB> And post Brexit, Amsterdam is definitely trying to sell itself as a creative successor to London, so it makes sense.
Ravi> It is. It’s very different to London though, or any other major city. I was also attracted at my stage in life to slow everything down a bit. London life after ten years was taking its toll. My commute is five minutes to work now. I was a cyclist in London and it took about 40 minutes to get from Peckham to Shoreditch and avoid death every day.
LBB> What was it like adjusting to Amsterdam?
Ravi> It’s smaller and less diverse. But it is beautiful and the work-life balance, as everyone says, is a lot better. The standard of living was actually quite a shock, to take a step back from London and realise that all these things you take as normal aren’t necessarily normal anywhere else. Having free time to think, hang out and meet new friends is great. It’s a brilliant, dynamic place and, especially in our industry, it’s a very international place as well. Lots of people are moving from lots of different areas for different reasons. There is an amazing flow of different people you meet.
LBB> What were your goals when you started at Pi Studios and how have your first two years compared to what you expected?
Ravi> The main thing when we started was trying to make stuff that was quality and really being selective about the partners who would come on board and identifying those individuals who really got the mission and wanted to achieve that too. I’ve worked on so many branded content pieces that were really just joining the dots and were an afterthought or didn’t really make sense or were designed by a creative who’d never made a documentary before and therefore it didn’t really hand together. Our aim was not just to make great advertising, but to make great entertainment that made sense on whatever platform we were working on.
We’ve started to make roads to that. I’m not going to say it’s been really easy. That’s not the way brands have thought traditionally, but there’s definitely much more openness to it now. The long term relationships we’ve been building with clients that we’ve already made work with have been really exciting.
It’s a relatively new area and I think it’s going to grow more and more in terms of that genuine editorial entertainment angle, as opposed to heavy-handed branded stuff. A lot of marketers are really smart about that now.
You can’t underestimate the importance of the strategic element to that. Making something fantastic alone will never be in the language that a brand can link to success. That’s been the big difference. Not just making something wonderful but it having a purpose and an output for the brand.
Working with WeTransfer has been an amazing example of that. They have spent a very long time embedding themselves within the music community and developing respect within the arts saying they wanted to be there long-term. So when we started making shows for them, the response within the creative community has been really positive.
They’re very open to working and understanding how artists work, whether that’s with Björk or 88rising, they’re very accommodating. As opposed to ‘we’re paying you so you need to do this brand endorsement.’ And that comes top-down from their founders, who really believe in that mission.
You’re starting to see that and it’s often individuals within organisations whose passion drives that through.
LBB> Your work with Boiler Room, WeTransfer and Nikon is not just good branded content; it's great content full stop. Does that come from the clients always or do you need to make the case to them?
Ravi> Nikon was much more of that. A natural camera brand who have an amazing device that shoots - an ingredient brand, perfect for filmmakers. That started as a strategic journey of how you use a platform like the Guardian to communicate that in an interesting way. That was more convincing, in terms of telling a story. Having a gay wedding or an arranged marriage within a Nikon piece of content was something they’d never done and felt quite nervous about from the off. Working with them to help them understand that that would work for the Guardian audience and also help filmmakers, particularly, to respect Nikon a lot more, in terms of telling actual stories rather than desensitised, neutral stories, would make the difference. I think that’s the most viewed Guardian documentary this year because of the timing of the royal wedding, but also because it was willing to go a bit further than your usual brand film. That was a project that was a year in the making.
LBB> Migrant Sound is a beautiful series with a really important message. What was the inspiration there and how did the idea develop into the final films?
Ravi> We’ve done a lot of music stuff and music’s a big passion of mine. Immigration is still the most talked about topic and at that time the Windrush scandal had started to unfold a bit. We’d naturally started to develop some thoughts on looking at the contribution, musically, of the Windrush generation and their descendants for UK music culture.
I used to work with Stephen Mai - the chief content officer at Boiler Room now - at i-D and Vice. We’d also done some stuff when he was at Lad Bible around our house documentary [‘I Was There When House Took Over The World
’]. We took that idea to him and he was really excited by it.
We made that happen really quickly. We’d been talking about it in April and by June we’d decided to do it and it went out eight weeks later. It was a quick turnaround to get that live.
LBB> That gives it so much more potency, because the scandal was still in the headlines at the time. You must have a way to stay topical which comes from your background in broadcasting and publishing.
Ravi> Totally. We’ve got a development team here from all different walks of life and industries. That’s one thing that’s been a bit different. We find things we really believe in - stories or characters that we get access to. It’s much easier talking to a brand or broadcaster when you have a compelling idea. It’s easy to get excited about.
We knew we wanted to do something in that space with Migrant Sound and we identified a few outlets that we thought would be revolutionary for a concept like that. We’re constantly looking around at the world and figuring out where we could go with cool ideas.
That goes back to right where I started in terms of film production. It’s very much about reading and meeting and talking to as many directors and writers as possible and creating an open forum for different kinds of ideas.
LBB> Right. You’ve just got to develop a reservoir of ideas that you can dip into.
Ravi> Exactly. You never know when some random idea suddenly becomes relevant to a conversation you’re having. So the more of them you have, the more fruitful it can be.
LBB> Finally, what are you into, outside of your very cool day job? You’re lucky that a lot of your passions can flow into what you do for a living. Do you have any that are completely unconnected?
Ravi> My wife’s going to get really embarrassed. We moved over here together and she’s doing a PhD on luxury and social enterprise in Sri Lanka, which I can’t claim to know anything about but I’ve been observing through her and it’s really interesting. Seeing how she’s doing some pretty groundbreaking research there.
And we do a lot of cooking. It’s a natural creative outlet which has a beginning, middle and end and lasts an hour or two. We’re quite into that.
It’s weird because whatever you’re interested in or your politics, we always try and feed that into work. Everyone’s a foodie so how do you communicate with that audience in a different way. We are lucky in the sense that we can bring that to work.