Q&A: with nice Group CEO Morten Aass
Adventurer and creative visionary Morten Aass, CEO of the Nordic region’s largest independent group of creative production companies, tells Future Vision the media industry must learn both to communicate with younger generations and hire more young talent.
Q. It’s now been almost 18 months since nice Group was launched as a rebrand of the Northern Alliance Group. How’s that going?
A. Any experiment throws out challenges but collectively nice Entertainment is now producing over 100 series a year, with 65-70% based on our own ideas. It’s not a bad track record so far.
Q. The business model favours the creative independent. How is it different than other production outfits in the Nordic region?
A. As an indie you have no choice. Develop or die! To begin with, the rights stay with the creators. And our focus, practically speaking, is on developing ideas and, at the same time, making maximum use of the production units we own.
Q. So each of your production companies makes their creative mark, as it were?
A. That’s right. Monster and Rakett in Norway, Gong in Denmark, Beluba and Titan in Sweden and Moskito in Finland all feature a development as well as a production department. In addition to our own teams, we add creativity from other groups – or creative satellites if you wish. It’s efficient if you have more developing units than production departments!
Q. Well, certainly, Monster Scripted and Monster Formats seem to be doing brilliantly.
A. Indeed. They are really hot right now. Half Brother is getting some of the highest ratings in Norwegian history and has sold to more than a dozen territories, and ditto for Babes On The Bus. The addition of Playroom to the Norwegian fold gives us a lot of potential for the future in other areas, since their client base is artist and event oriented.
Q. The goal was to transform Monster from a production company to a more complete entertainment house, as I understand it?
A. That's right. Adding new businesses both in the value chain of TV but also on the outskirts of the TV business makes us more complete. It’s fascinating how fast these players have proven themselves able to fit into a larger team.
Q. Why focus on changing the business model for production? What’s wrong with the old one?
A. Just that: it’s old and maybe old-fashioned. I’ve been on both sides of the table — the channel side and the production side — and I’ve seen almost no changes in the last few decades. On the creative side, this automatically triggers my “Can we do it differently?” button. We are living in the 21st century, the digital landscape is changing how we think and work by the minute and yet, as an industry, our production model is the same as it was 30 years ago. Nothing has changed.
Q. But if we like doing it the way we are doing it, why change?
A. There are too many new possibilities out there that you can't ignore. The net itself is becoming the main distribution platform. Local publishers push live web content and, even now, the competition between the OTT players indicates a clear need for more local content. In the Nordic region, most TV giants have a well functioning play offer that gives the viewer a choice of when and where they will be able to see content. I believe these offers will also include more exclusive content that will help beef up domestic play functions.
Q. So at nice, each company comes up with their own ideas but hopefully they will also have regional and international cross-border potential?
A. It depends on the idea but that’s basically the strategy, yes. We see creativity as the driving force of all nice companies and believe strongly in the importance of local development. However, our projects are also oriented towards having pan-Nordic and cross-border appeal. A large number of shows travel, and some to quite a few territories around the globe.
Q. Does this mean the strategy gets a thumbs-up? It worked?
A. There’s still work to be done. As I said earlier, we have no choice if we want to keep and grow our local positions. In Sweden, Baluba has cornered the market on humour and shiny-floor entertainment, and Titan has done the same in the reality area. NICE Drama also has major series on the front burner that it will soon be announcing.
Q. And the work that needs to be done?
A. At the moment, there are simply too many production companies in the Nordic region. Our margins are already being squeezed very tightly and, more recently, some of the talented people we’d hoped to bring into our nice circle of companies have decided to start up their own production companies.
Q. Thus, more competition?
A. In essence, although as I said, it’s an experiment. If you want to grow, you have to take risks and if you take risks, you will have challenges to overcome.
Q. Your own life is one in which you have encouraged the people you work with to take risks and to experiment. You just came back from diving in the Red Sea. You have led climbing expeditions to some of the greatest mountain peaks in the world.
A. I think there is a need for adventure that is present in a lot of creative people. My own feeling has always been that you can’t be creative — with content or anything else — if you don’t experience life.
Q. And sitting in an office doesn’t quite do it?
A. Not in my experience. The best TV shows and formats come, as an example, from something you observe. You hear a conversation in a subway, observe a chunk of life or just see patterns, and you have the makings of a great format.
Q. More isn't better, then, when it comes to putting in time at the office?
A. I haven’t seen too many happy people working 24/7. To my mind, there are three key criteria for a successful business. Define your goals, organize and energize. If I don’t have the energy, I’m a lousy leader for creative people. Even if I enjoy working, to fill the batteries, I must admit time spent outside the office is the best part of life.
Q. You were the founder of Brain Station, a highly successful production hub concept for brainstorming formats. What would a Brain Station think tank look like in the year 2020, if you can imagine that?
A. The key ingredients that made Brain Station work will still be present any time in the future, and that is creativity and intelligence and the willingness to nourish an atmosphere where creativity can flourish. Brain Station worked because it consisted of small groups of dedicated people working together to come up with formats that had local appeal.
Q. So digital won’t make a difference?
A. Oh, yes. Certainly, the web and mobile are tools that help with creativity but they are just that. Tools. The idea comes first and that was what Brain Station was about.
Q. From your perspective, what’s the biggest problem or hurdle that the media landscape faces today, not just in the Nordic region but around the globe?
A. As an industry, communications is still the biggest barrier and I’m not talking just about cultures but rather, about how we communicate with younger generations and how they communicate with each other. On many levels, we still don’t get it.
Q. You mean in terms of traditional TV?
A. Exactly. Younger generations communicate in a completely different way than we do. To begin with, they don’t watch much traditional TV. They use the web and mainly mobile for entertainment and also to communicate.
Q. But there are inherent problems in that dynamic, aren’t there? The information base is very selective?
A. True on the whole but we still have to learn to work with it if we want to produce content younger generations might be interested in.
Q. If what you say is true, it means younger generations will irrevocably migrate to the web for entertainment?
A. It’s already happening now. Use of linear TV is falling rapidly and migration to the web for entertainment as well as information increasing rapidly. Sooner or later, and more probably sooner, it will have a massive impact on traditional channels and their distribution.
Q. So what’s the secret, then, in communicating with the younger generation?
A. It helps if you actually hire them, and nice is doing that in increasing numbers. There are far too many old men in our industry who are acting as gatekeepers. We need to recruit more young talent, move them into positions of responsibility and allow them to recruit their own creatives. That would, at least, be a good start.
Captions: From top:
TvNorge/nice's Babes On The Bus
Monster's Half Brother
Morten Aass - [below] On Everest North Ridge