Over the course of nearly 30 years, San Francisco’s Bonfire Labs has embraced change. Over the years, the company evolved from an editorial and post house to a design and creative content studio that leverages the best aspects of the agency and production company models without adhering to either one.
This hybrid model has worked well for product launches for Google, Facebook, Salesforce, Logitech and many others.
The latest change is in the company’s ownership, with the last of the original founders stepping down and a new management partnership taking over — led by executive producer Mary Mathaisell, managing director Jim Bartel and head of strategy and creative Chris Weldon.
We spoke with Mathaisell to get a better sense of Bonfire Labs’ past, present and future.
Can you give us some history of Bonfire Labs? When did you join the company? How/why did you first get into producing?
I’ve been with Bonfire Labs for seven years. I started here as head of production. After being at several large digital agencies working on campaigns and content for brands like Target, Gap, LG and PayPal, I wanted to build something more sustainable than just another campaign and was thrilled that Bonfire was interested in growing into a full-service creative company with integrated production.
Prior to working at AKQA and Publicis, I worked in VFX and production as well as design for products and interfaces, but my primary focus and love has always been commercial production.
The studio has evolved from a traditional post studio to creative strategy and content company. What were the factors that drove those changes?
Bonfire Labs has always been smart about staying small and strategic about the kind of work and clients to focus on. We have been able to change based on both the kind of work we want to be doing and what the market needs. With a giant need for content, especially video content, we have decided to staff and service clients as experts across all the phases of creative development and production and finishing. Instead of going to an agency and a production company and post houses, our clients can work directly with us on everything from concept to finishing.
Silicon Valley is clearly a big client base for you. What are they generally coming to you for? Are the content needs in high tech different from other business sectors?
Our clients usually have a new product, feature or brand that they want the world to know about. We work on product launches, brand awareness campaigns, product education, event content and social content. Most of our work is for technology companies, but every company these days has a technology component. I would say that speed to market is one key differentiator for our clients. We are often building stories as we are in production, so we get a lot done with our clients through creative collaboration and by not following the traditional rules of an agency or a production company.
Any specific trends that you’re seeing recently from your clients? New areas that Bonfire is looking to explore, either new markets for your talents or technology you’re looking to explore further?
Rapid brand prototyping is a new service we are offering to much excitement. Because we have experience across so many technology brands and work closely with our clients, we can develop a language and brand voice faster than most traditional agencies. Technology brands are evolving so quickly that we often start working on content creation before a brand has defined itself or transitioned to its next phase. Rapid brand prototyping allows brands to test content and grow the brand simultaneously.
Can you talk about some projects that you have done recently that challenged you and the team?
We rolled out a launch film for a new start-up client called Blade Shadow. We are working with Salesforce to develop trailblazer stories and anthem films for its .org branch, which focuses on NGOs, education and philanthropy.
The company is undergoing a transition with some of the original partners. Can you talk about that a bit as well?
The original founders have passed the torch to the group of people who have been managing and producing the work over the past five to 15 years. We have six new owners, three managing partners and three associate partners. Jim Bartel is the managing director; Chris Weldon is the head of strategy and creative, and I’m the executive producer in charge of content development and production. The three of us make up the management team.
The three of us make up the management team. Sheila Smith (head of production) Robbie Proctor (head of editorial) and Phil Spitler (creative technology lead) are associate partners as they contribute to and lead so much of our work and process and have been part of the company for over 10 years each.