The Wellington multimedia company ClickSuite has just won a major creative pitch to the Leo Burnett advertising agency in London. It recently secured the first worldwide internet marketing licence to be granted for a Film Commission property. The intranet system it designed for Te Papa won a gold medal at the New York Festival. Russell Brown looks at how companies like ClickSuite blend creativity and the knowledge economy.
ClickSuite's co-founder, Emily Loughnan (pictured above), chairs the Wellington City Council's Creative Capital business cluster.
Essentially, ClickSuite looks very much like the kind of small, creative business the government would like to see flourish. So where in all this does Creative New Zealand, the agency responsible for applying creative policy, fit?
"I don't know," Loughnan admits. "Creative New Zealand as far as I can see is another one of those government areas saying, 'we're interested, we're sniffing around, we might come to a meeting or two - but we don't really know how to handle it'."
The relationship between emerging creative industries and the pursuits traditionally regarded as culture is a key issue for the knowledge economy.
The young people who graduate from Wanganui Polytechnic's multimedia design course are the same kids who have always picked up guitars and paintbrushes - except these days they graduate to the sound of fluttering cheque books. The best of them can expect to go straight into jobs paying $80,000 a year or more with web development companies. Their employers, in turn, are increasingly focused on export opportunities.
The issue of how best to support creative individuals was canvassed in the Heart of the Nation report, but that report was shelved because the government wouldn't buy into its plans for root-and-branch structural reform of the key agencies.
Associate Arts Minister Judith Tizard, who took much of the flak for the failure of the Heart of the Nation project, is still hopeful of many of the ideas in the report being rescued and applied, possibly through Industry New Zealand.
She has been working with the Department of Work and Income and Creative New Zealand on pilot programmes to provide a kind of arts benefit in Dunedin and Auckland.
"What we're interested in doing is taking people from good training and good ideas through to setting themselves up in business," says Tizard. "We're trying to mainstream creative industries and say look, this is real work, whether it's software, music or fashion, or better marketing of the arts. We're not talking about make work or recreation here, we're talking about industries."
The quality of work on offer is one reason that firms like ClickSuite, which might just as easily position themselves in the software industry, identify with the creative sector, says Loughnan.
"We look for export opportunities, which tend to be technology-ish, but if you go in there saying 'we're a software company', you don't tend to get the really creative projects," she says.
Ironically, the key bit of public sector assistance so far for ClickSuite has come from Technology New Zealand. That grant, says Loughnan, "initiated a project which is going to turn into a multimillion-dollar export earner, which would not have happened without Technology New Zealand".
"There's lot's of money that's called risk capital, but when you're at the very beginning and you don't even know if it's going to work, that's where I think the government can help. We wouldn't even have started that project without Technology New Zealand."
Avoiding the cracks
Chris Chetland, co-founder of the Auckland dance music label and multimedia design house Kog Transmissions, also sees well-targeted public support as a bridge to private funding.
Early this year, after six years of applying, Chetland and his collective got their first Creative New Zealand grant. They used it to produce a CD-Rom which showcases the four labels operated under the Kog imprint, with press kits, video and music samples. The CD-Rom played a key part in winning Europe-wide distribution deals with labels in France and Germany, but Chetland wishes the process of applying was less onerous.
"There was a 20-page application with videos and everything. The big problem with applying for contestable funding is the amount of time it takes to actually do it. It's often more time than you can afford."
It is easy, also, to fall between the cracks. Kog has no chance at any of the $2 million of extra funding at New Zealand On Air because its releases do not get played on mainstream radio stations (even though its top releases, like the two Pitch Black albums, sell as many as 5000 units) and its low-cost business model does not allow for the $30,000 to $50,000 NZ On Air requires in matching funding from labels under its new Phase Four scheme.
"Phase Four is making money available at the end of the market where people already have it," says Chris Hocquard, founder of mp3.net.nz, which launched this year to sell New Zealand music online.
"I think we have set ourselves up to do something to help the music industry, and I think we're also helping the whole online creative thing. It would be nice to think that government policies allowed for funding, but realistically the money that's available for broadcasting and music in New Zealand is not available for online stuff.
"New Zealand On Air does not see its role as anything other than getting as much New Zealand content on broadcast media as possible, and at the moment, it only sees broadcasting as TV and radio, not the internet."
For now, Kog Transmissions is in the curious position of having had more support from the private sector, notably from the marketing departments of Red Bull and Heineken.
"We've had far more money from them than we ever have from the government," says Chetland. "So far the private sector's been really good at looking after us -they actually give you far more creative freedom than government-style agencies. There's a lot less paperwork to do and they trust you a lot more to just do what you do."
Chetland believes that applicants who have already proved themselves shouldn't have to jump through so many hoops for funding, "but on the other hand, it's really important to avoid any suggestion of an in-crowd getting backhanders, because that's when people get really cynical about the whole thing".
Tizard is hoping the new Industry New Zealand programmes will fill some gaps, but admits to feeling that "you can't spend too much time drawing up criteria if you want creative businesses to apply. Because the whole point of being creative is that you're not doing things by the old criteria. We've got to make sure that what we do is flexible and adaptive."
One of the bodies for which Tizard is responsible, the Film Commission, demonstrated an apparent willingness to innovate recently when it was wooed by ClickSuite into its most significant online venture yet.
Along with director Tony Hiles, the company convinced the commission to allow it to sell Hiles' documentary about the making of Peter Jackson's Bad Taste via a dedicated website (www.goodtaste.co.nz). ClickSuite, Hiles and the commission will share revenue from the venture.
Don't bank on it
The venture has highlighted a number of the issues in adjusting to a global, online world. Jackson fans in France and Germany, who try to buy the video, will be greeted with a message telling them they can't, because the commission has already granted home video distribution rights in those territories.
But a far bigger issue - one not exclusive to the creative industries, but felt particularly keenly there - is the slow and even obstructive performance of New Zealand banks over e-commerce. Although there are several real-time payment products available, no bank in New Zealand will allow the running of a credit card merchant account, or any other kind, in US dollars. There is no legislative obstacle to such a service.
Loughnan is on the management committee of Ebanz, the e-business group within Tuanz, and says the banks' performance on e-commerce is one of the key issues for Ebanz.
She says the inability to run merchants accounts in US dollars is "the biggie, the real stumbling block. Everything else - the fee structures, the fact that you approach the banks and they're not really ready to do transactions - is a bit more solvable."
Hocquard, whose whole business is based on online sales, is scathing about New Zealand banks.
"I don't think the banks are even remotely interested, apart from advertising the fact that they can do it," says Hocquard. "Quite honestly, I think they haven't given that any thought. Online e-commerce transactions are so small at the moment that the banks are reactive rather than proactive. They're all sitting back saying, well, 'we're not going to go first because the technology will change'. And sooner or later, someone's got to take a punt.
"We could set up a solution tomorrow to transact in US dollars, but the banks wouldn't accept the payments. And that means then I'm in the hands of someone like WebFarm, which I think is the only company in New Zealand which can do it, or I've got to put my money offshore."
The fee structures associated with credit card sales are such that Hocquard has had to stipulate a minimum purchase of $10 - or four tracks at $2.50 each. The need for a credit card is also a barrier for younger audiences. Ironically, his need for a micro-transactions capability is set to be solved not by any bank but by a major telecommunications company. When the deal is done, you'll buy a song and it'll be charged to your phone bill.
Making it easier
None of the creative businesses Computerworld spoke to had any concerns about the issues which have most exercised the established business lobby under the new government - the changes to employment legislation and workplace compensation - but they were keen for the government to reconsider its decision on tax breaks for R&D investment.
"I know there is some talk about having it, but it still seems to be being looked at in sort of a narrow light," says Loughnan. "As a new company in this area, you are doing a lot of R&D. Some of it pays off, some of it doesn't. And if you're investing time and money in a project and it doesn't come off, then you should be able to write that off."
Author Chad Taylor, somewhat of a Renaissance man by virtue of his work in print, web design and film, has a web site dedicated to his latest novel, Shirker. The book was completed with the aid of a Creative New Zealand literary grant which allowed him to pay an overseas agent and win international publication via the Edinburgh-based Canongate.
Taylor, who is now associated with four publishing companies, says working with European publishers has been "terrific" and "uplifting", but he doesn't get to see his publishers as often as he'd like. Hence one of his ideas for helping artists into the wider world.
"Artist's Standby - seriously. I want the government to do a discount travel deal with the national airline and to help writers and artists in practical ways," says Taylor.
"I would like to see government support in the form of coupons: small travel grants, a discount computer, vehicle leases for travelling artists, discount materials, that sort of thing. Tie it in with industry sponsors. The idea of standardised 'coupons' would give the sponsors and the government better publicity and simplify the application process."
These are the kind of ideas that will, in their straightforwardness, appeal to creative people in business, and perhaps to the government too. Tizard says she is wary of schemes that demand extensive monitoring of funded companies - reasoning that money spent on retaining talent to monitor performance is money lost to creative talent itself.
"The arts and the creative area are important for themselves - they make you feel good," says Tizard. "In a globalising world they're also important for national and personal identity. But there are also lots of highly-paid, highly-skilled jobs involved, and this is something New Zealanders are good at."
She says her aim is for government and agencies it funds to "build bridges, rather than dictate what goes over the bridges", and to maintain as flexible approach as possible, by changing strategies and people, rather than embarking on Heart of the Nation-style restructuring.
"There's no model," she says. "If the clich‚s are true, and today's five-year-old will be doing jobs we haven't even thought of with technology we haven't invented yet, then the only thing we can sensibly do is teach the young and the old to think and create."