04 Feb 2021

Telling the story of Untold Studios

Via video call, Investec sat down with co-founders Darren O’Kelly and Michael Wolfson to get an inside look at Untold Studios - the creative studio responsible for some of the most-loved and ground-breaking content audiences have ever seen.

If you cast your mind back to 2015 rarely did the worlds of television entertainment and advertising cross. But in the years following, as viewers shifted their evening entertainment fix to streaming services, creative content was at a point of drastic change.

 

Darren O’Kelly and Michael Wolfson had been colleagues and friends in the creative media space for a collective 12 years. Alongside their co-founders, they identified an opportunity to engage brands, commissioners and advertising agencies to create extraordinary content that audiences will remember. This is the story of Untold Studios. 

 

The origin story of Untold Studios

Both O’Kelly and Wolfson wanted to capitalise on the opportunity they had identified, but were conscious of the competitive market – “The world doesn’t really need more of the same, what it does need every so often is reinvention - taking a look at existing things in a new way. We wanted to create an independent creative studio that produces extraordinary content. Be that developing it from the outset, producing it or completing visual effects on it.”

The intersection of entertainment and advertising was gathering momentum in 2018, when Untold Studios was established. O’Kelly and Wolfson, while first-time entrepreneurs, were very experienced in the industry and were encouraged by other pieces of work:

 

“There were a few things that encouraged us in the early days. Shortly after we made the leap we saw a number of pieces of work, in particular, a documentary called the 'Defiant Ones' which told the story of Beats by Dr Dre. It became apparent that the documentary was commissioned by Apple, shortly after they had acquired Beats. No surprise to anyone, sales for Beats products went through the roof. We saw it again more recently with the Netflix documentary 'The Last Dance' – Air Jordan sales also spiked dramatically.”

“We felt that there was an opportunity to bring different voices or stories to the screen, or amplify voices that aren’t represented as much as they ought to be, stories that are Untold.”

Having identified the opportunity, O’Kelly and Wolfson, along with four other co-founders named the start-up “Untold Studios”. 

 

“We felt that there was an opportunity to bring different voices or stories to the screen, or amplify voices that aren’t represented as much as they ought to be, stories that are Untold.” 

Untold, now 120 people strong, is primarily built on the core principles of creativity and talent, but it has a robust infrastructure based on three main strands. Firstly, a content studio, which encompasses development and production. Here Untold develops original ideas, for brands and commissioners. The second strand consists of content production. Examples include UK rap and grime music content, as well as lots of influential television advertising content. The third-string is the visual special effects team. O’Kelly credited the team with delivering some of the industry's best VFX work over the last two years: “Our work is utterly world-class.”

 

A combination of the VFX studio and the reputation of the founding team was a key selling point for winning business for Untold Studios. Such was the founder’s reputation, initially they didn’t create a website or market themselves heavily. But the team’s pedigree was so prestigious that in the first few months they won esteemed contracts such as the John Lewis Christmas advert with Excitable Edgar, Stormzy and Dave Music Promos and notably season three and four of The Crown.

The Crown contract was a clear example of Untold Studios living up to its name and culture. The team were pitching for the Aberfan disaster episode in which a landslide destroyed large parts of a welsh village. Untold was originally brought in as a wildcard as O’Kelly explained:

 

“We were thinking about how we pitch for this, and we refer back to our name and core values. This was going to be the first time that Aberfan was being brought to British television, it was an untold story. We could have spoken about the craft and tech behind it, but we decided that the most important thing was explaining to the commissioners how we had meticulously researched the events of that day, the profound nature of the events and how we would authentically help to tell the story. And that we would be a responsible creative partner to authentically and sensitively bring those scenes to life.” 

Creative culture in action

The Crown was a great success for the Untold Studios’ culture. But we asked, how does this translate into your team and your day-to-day working environment?

 

“Everything in a start-up is a question at first, should we paint that wall pink? What tech platform do we want? How will we recruit? We immediately installed a culture of questioning everything.” This was a throwback to Untold regenerating the market by taking existing methodology or concepts and putting a new spin on things.

 

O’Kelly expanded by touching upon a key characteristic of entrepreneurs: “One of our co-founders always talks about how great entrepreneurialism is really about 2/3 experience and 1/3 naivety. If you only have experience, there is the danger that you get hamstrung by that, you need the naivety, you need to jump feet first and you need that childlike wonder that allows you to ask why is it done that way?”

 

O’Kelly and Wolfson agreed that this was an ethos that they look for when recruiting new staff: “We talk about character and competency. We also look for an outlook that says we can disrupt the status quo. All of our staff sense there’s something to do differently.”  

"In entrepreneurialism, you need the naivety, you need to jump feet first and you need that childlike wonder that allows you to ask why is it done that way?”

Technology trailblazers

Traditionally, creative studios hold a lot of real estate to store huge computer processing equipment and servers to cater for high fidelity VFX imagery and video content. However, based on Untold’s history of “questioning everything”, it won’t come as a surprise to anyone that they were the world’s first cloud-based studio:

 

“So, what about moving all that processing into the cloud? All the operational machinery, all the tech solutions. It seemed like a crazy idea, but we found a partner in AWS (Amazon Web Services) who shared our vision. It was a huge undertaking, but the result was shifting from a predominantly CAPEX to an OPEX workflow. It freed up our cash so we could redeploy financing to invest in talent rather than tech. The tech became an enabler to build an extraordinary team.”

 

Both founders were keen to emphasise that while the technology has been a great differentiator for them, especially during the recent pandemic lockdown conditions, this was only a short-term gain:

 

“Technology equalises over time, it’s been great in the short-term, fundamentally it’s an enabler. It has enabled us to focus on the talent. Which is what Untold is about. We like to let the work we create speak for itself.” 

The lookout
Darren O'Kelly, co-founder of Untold Studios

Everything in a start-up is a question at first, should we paint that wall pink? What tech platform do we want? How will we recruit? We immediately installed a culture of questioning everything.

Entrepreneurial spirit

Wolfson and O’Kelly spoke in detail about the character they like to install into the organisation, however, we wanted to delve more into the journeys of the two entrepreneurs themselves. They had differing views on the push and pull factors, Wolfson explained:

 

“I had previously spent a long time working in private equity, in which I would take other people’s businesses and build them up instead. Which made me come to my own conclusion, with your own vision and working with like-minded people, who you know well, you know their strengths and weaknesses, then why not start something from scratch yourself? I liked that challenge, so why couldn’t I do that?”

 

It’s clear that Wolfson relished the challenge of delivering a successful new company, and it certainly is a consistent trait found in other entrepreneurs. Including, Wolfson’s colleague, O’Kelly:

"With your own vision and working with like-minded people, who you know well, you know their strengths and weaknesses, then why not start something from scratch yourself? I liked that challenge, so why couldn’t I do that?”

“We’ve found a lot of push and pull factors for starting a new business. Push being the sense of dissatisfaction. It makes you pose the question: ‘do you think the next 10 years are going to be as exciting as the previous 10 years?’ And if the answer to that is a qualified maybe or no, it’s probably about time to start thinking about what are the other options out there. That hit me in a very strong way.”

 

It’s not unusual to have one founder or even a founding partnership, but one of the reasons for Untold’s success was the leading and varied skillset of Untold’s six founders, O’Kelly and Wolfson included, O’Kelly touched upon the founding team:

 

“Michael and I grew up in a very entrepreneurial environment, as did our four other co-founders. Irrespective of our past, we’ve always thought that there is an opportunity to be entrepreneurial in everything we do.”

 

Maintaining that entrepreneurial spirit has been key to Untold’s successes: winning early prestigious contracts, attracting top of the class talent and revolutionary technology. It has influenced a lot so far and would appear to be dictating the growth model for Untold as well.

What does the future hold for Untold?

So, what are Untold’s plans now? It has been a rapid story of growth for an organisation that punches well above its two-year age. O’Kelly explained:

 

“We feel really optimistic about the future. We have come off the back of our strongest quarter, and we’re very optimistic as to what Q4 looks like. We’re hugely fortunate to have terrific support from our stakeholders, shareholders and partners in the world of finance through our rapid period of growth. Our partners have been very good at letting us do business and always assisting when we’ve needed.”

 

“We’re building a company of the future. Due to the pandemic, that future happened in three weeks. Our commissioning partners wanted to combine with a company that was built for the future and one that represents optimism and hope, that’s what you get in abundance at Untold. We think that’s palpable when clients speak to our teams.”

It is remarkable to think that Untold Studios is only two years old. Add into the mix the even shorter amount of time the company has had a website and it’s an incredible story of organic growth, driven by pure talent, creativity and, most importantly, a culture of questioning. It’s certainly true the story of Untold is one to watch. 

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