Mary Quinn, Director of Digital Strategy and Business Development at Vancouver-based interactive media company Switch United, has been involved in almost every form of production represented by the CMPA. Bridging gaps across nations and platforms has been her calling from early on in her career.
Born and raised in the UK, Quinn took part in an innovative degree program at The University of Leeds’ Institute of Communication Studies, sponsored by the BBC. She was one of only seventeen students a year to graduate from the program with a Bachelor of Broadcasting (BBc) and Management Studies. This degree opened her eyes to the demands placed on both broadcasters and directors, but her own leaning was towards the production side of the business.
She landed her first gig with Ginger Productions working on the smash-hit television show TFI Friday, based out of London. At the time, host Chris Evans was a household name—akin to the Conan O’Brien of the UK.
Despite being at the top of her game in London, a few years into the job with Ginger Productions Quinn decided to cross the Atlantic and move to Vancouver. Her decision was not motivated by the draw of new career opportunities, but instead by the varied attractions of Canada’s West coast landscape: “I love the outdoors—I love hiking, being in the mountains and on the ocean.”
Far from being a way to jettison her career, the move to a new continent meant having to build a reputation in the industry all over again. TFI Friday enjoyed massive popularity in the UK, but its name recognition did not carry over the Atlantic. Nevertheless, Quinn managed to find work with one of Vancouver’s most successful independent production companies, Brightlight Pictures.
After four years with Brightlight, Quinn was able to exercise the broadcast management skills she picked up at university by securing a high-level executive position with CBC Television. She oversaw CBC’s drama and comedy productions on the west coast, giving her exposure to a broad spectrum of producers, creators and a wide range of projects.
But in an industry as volatile as the broadcasting sector, no job is ever guaranteed. Only three years after she began working at the CBC, Quinn’s position was eliminated during a structural reconfiguration. “I loved the position, but it didn’t exist anymore. I didn’t want to move to Toronto. I also didn’t want to move back to London. Vancouver was and is my home.”
Faced with this challenge, Quinn demonstrated her versatility once again by drawing from experience she had gained while working on a couple of Digital Development Labs organized by CBC. “I’d loved that exposure and felt that there was an opportunity for storytelling outside of broadcast, either supporting broadcast or creating original content online for audiences to delve into and explore interactively.” The opportunity Quinn saw for the industry at large proved to be an opportunity for her own personal employment. It was at this stage in her career that she landed the job she currently holds, Director of Digital Strategy and Business Development at Switch United.
Interactive media presents its own rewards and challenges, not least because it often involves service work that requires collaboration with both broadcasters, creators and independent producers. Quinn’s diverse background makes her an ideal fit for the job. “I know that being a bridge between the worlds is very much a role that I play here at Switch. I help in the translation of languages, even something as simple as overlapping terminology. In digital we use the term ‘co-viewing’ to mean watching content on a second screen, but in television ‘co-viewing’ refers to different audiences (like children and adults) watching the same program.” Her experience also helps with understanding the “pain points” of both independent producers and broadcasters—“to know what they’re going through, what their needs are.”
Quinn has made it her mission to create a culture of understanding and mutual benefit. If there is one area of contention she would like to address, it is the need to raise awareness for the unique demands placed on interactive companies. Producers of traditional media often expect their interactive counterparts to abide by the tried and tested business protocols of the industry, but these practices often entail greater risk for digital companies who specialize primarily in service work built around pre-existing content.
“The industry standard follows the model of pitching your project for free. I know the producers traditional media pitch their shows to broadcasters, but if they’re turned down they still own that original IP (intellectual property) at the end of the day. Whereas we can’t take any of our work to another buyer if we don’t get the job.” Every interactive project needs to be tailored to the program it supports, so there is often no way to transfer invested work to another opportunity.
Nevertheless, Quinn is quick to emphasize that all of their commissions have led to positive business relationships. She is very proud of their two most recent projects. One is an interactive series of stories designed to supplement eight documentaries celebrating the CFL’s Grey Cup, which recently wrapped up its 100th season. Switch took a fresh approach to the sport by highlighting the human interest element of their stories. Another recently launched project was for the CBC and took the form of an interactive graphic novel précising the War of 1812 for its 200th anniversary.
If there is one principle that the Switch team strives to apply across projects, it is an intuitive interface. Like many of the best original musical scores for film, the most effective interfaces should fuse so seamlessly with the overall experience that they go largely unnoticed. “The user shouldn’t have to think about how to navigate through the space—it should be intuitive where the buttons are.” Every story and project, however, demands a unique interactive design to make that kind of synergy possible.
And the user data will often tell them if they have succeeded in their mission. One advantage offered by digital media is its capacity to provide detailed metrics on user behaviour. “It’s a two-way conversation.”
From Quinn’s perspective, industry executives can never be too attentive to the conversations surrounding media production, and the interactive space brings audiences directly into the fold. It is just one more translation gap she is helping to bridge.