Somethin' Special: The Drum catches up with Somethin' Else as part of 20/2000 visionaries series

In the latest of our 20/2000 series, where we mark the 25th anniversary of London digital agency Precedent by celebrating 20 top digital shops founded prior to the year 2000, The Drum meets Jez Nelson and Paul Bennun of Somethin’ Else and finds out why they believe that the 23-year-old agency’s story is only just beginning...

“I’ll start at the end and loop back,” says Jez Nelson, chief executive officer of Somethin’ Else, when asked to outline the chronology of his agency. “These days we’d describe ourselves as a full service digital agency delivering high quality strategic content for brands and broadcasters but, to be honest, the creation of audience-focused content has always been at the very centre of what we do.”

Somethin’ Else was founded in 1991 by Nelson and Paul Bennun as one of the UK’s first independent radio production companies. Nelson says: “Paul and I had witnessed the nascent independent scene develop for TV but weren’t aware of any indie production companies focused on radio, so we decided to launch our own.”

From day one, London-based Somethin’ Else worked with both broadcasters and brands, kicking off with ad sponsored commercial radio content for brands including DHL, Wella Shockwaves and the Guardian, quickly followed by the agency’s first work for the BBC.

“Today, although radio/audio is only one element of the work we do for our clients, we are the biggest independent producer of radio content in Europe,” says Nelson. Somethin’ Else’s first paid digital project was for the BBC in 1995, turning a Radio 1 documentary called ‘Surfing for Love’ into an hour-long sequence of Flash-based toys and puzzles linked to the subject matter of the show, broadcast over the BBC’s test DAB network.

Jez Nelson, chief executive, Somethin' Else

Mobilising for the 21st century

In 2000, Somethin’ Else pioneered interactive audio on mobile devices (and “burnt some dotcom money” says Nelson) with its XY Network — an audio-on-demand service startup created in collaboration with BT Cellnet. Complete with an interface that uncannily predicted the iPhone’s future format (push-button square icons on a touchscreen) the service was ultimately to prove ahead of its time.

Bennun is philosophical about the failure of XY Network: “What we learned fed seamlessly into our long-term work for Orange UK, devising and producing its mobile and web music content for five years,” he says.

“Generally speaking, we’ve excelled at mobile media and mobile gaming. Our audio games, starting with Papa Sangre in 2010, are widely regarded as the best games for blind players on the market, and 2013’s sequel, Papa Sangre II, was the Metacritic iOS Game of the Year, the best-scoring game (93 per cent) ever made by a UK studio.”

Paul Bennun, chief creative officer, Somethin' Else

Around the same time the agency first made its mark in video gaming, directing and producing a seminal game for BMG Interactive called You Don’t Know Jack. Still highly regarded by games designers today, it recreated an interactive TV quiz show inside a computer game, providing a key inspiration for Sony Computer Entertainment’s Buzz! games which Somethin’ Else would work on almost 15 years later.

In 1999, the agency’s relationship with BMG led to it winning its first Bafta award (best audio PlayStation). Bennun says: “If you look back to when we started doing digital work, other agencies in the space tended to have a technical background rather than a content background.

Long before it was fashionable, we were one of the few digital agencies in the UK with a truly content-based approach to digital marketing. “We kept faith in that approach right through the 90s and early 00s and then, eventually, as the technology side of digital marketing became commoditised, our way of doing things, delighting audiences, became the thing all agencies aspire to.”

A still from audio game Papa Sangre

The agency continued to grow steadily across the 00s, working with brands such as Woolworths, Boots and Red Bull and broadcasters, including frequent work for the BBC and Channel 4. Bennun points out how they created a number of strands to the business “on parallel tracks” that all continued to grow in profitability (radio, digital, video, gaming, broadcasters, brands) but, at that time, rarely crossed over into each other’s domain.

Nelson says: “It’s only in the last three or four years that we’ve really been able to pull those different strands together in terms of what we can deliver for our clients. For example, the people we have working on the Red Bull account will also be working with broadcasters such as Radio 1 or Channel 4, so we can offer brands real insights into contemporary audiences and the type of content they want.”

New beginnings

In 2012, Somethin’ Else was nominated for the best mobile game Bafta for The Nightjar — a game starring Benedict Cumberbatch, funded by Wrigley’s Gum, and produced in collaboration with AMV BBDO.

The project would go on to win a host of major gaming and marketing awards, including a Cannes Lion.

The agency also earned plaudits for its social media based projects including The Bedroom Jam (2012) for Red Bull, a search for the best unsigned heavy music act in the UK which culminated in a live-to-air web broadcast.

In recent years, Somethin’ Else’s work with broadcasters has included turning Skins into a 360-degree show where the characters interacted with viewers on social media, and consulting on how to turn some of the UK’s largest soap operas into interactive projects.

A still from the agency's Dr Who game

The agency is also now the digital content partner of the Brit Awards, producing literally every single piece of content that is not TV, including overall strategy, the website, Facebook, Instagram, Vine, Twitter, back-stage and red carpet videos and branded content for third parties. This cohesive approach led 2014’s Brit Awards to be the most tweeted-about TV show in UK history.

Other recent highlights include Nightmare High (another Bafta winning project) for Channel 4 Education, and the agency’s work on some of the BBC’s most prestigious brands including Doctor Who.

Nelson says: “Things have got really interesting for us over the past few years and, as a company, we feel very well positioned in a world where brands suddenly want to have more meaningful relationships with their audiences. Brands are now ready to invest in their content strategy in a serious way.

“For us, being entrusted by the BBC with a brand like Doctor Who is a huge honour and a sign of where we are as a strategic digital agency. It feels as if this is the time we’ve been waiting for. In fact, it feels like this is only the beginning.”

This article was originally published in the 12 November issue of The Drum .

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