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LONDON, United Kingdom — Raven Smith is the commissioning director of the global video channel Nowness. After graduating from the London College of Communication with a Bachelor's degree in photography, Smith became editor at Black Dog Publishing, a British publishing company specialising in illustrated non-fiction books on contemporary culture, in 2008. During this time, Smith was responsible for conceptualising, commissioning and art directing the layout, graphics and copy of the firm's seven titles. In 2010, he joined Nowness as commissioning art editor, bringing along his experience of delivering specialised narratives for a contemporary audience. Smith left Nowness in 2012 to join entertainment channel MTV as art director, and was also the lead creative on the launch of District MTV (now MTV Style International). In 2013, Smith returned to Nowness, where he is now responsible for developing the company's editorial and branded content strategies.
BoF: Please describe your current role.
As commissioning director of Nowness, my role is to help develop and roll out the creative strategy for the company. I lead on all our commissions, making sure our video output reinforces and develops our audience.
BoF: What attracted you to a career in fashion film? Is this an area you’ve always been interested in?
I’ve always loved films but I don’t think I’m unique in that. At a wider level I’m interested in culture, especially what’s portrayed on film. We all have an idea of what a traditional fashion film is — that tired, slow motion vision of a pretty girl in a pretty dress — and I'm keen to keep making films that move you and defy your expectations in that space. It's usual for people to think of film and fashion film as separate entities, but as we live more online, there’s the same audience (and attention span) for both. At Nowness our goal is simple: we want to make films that are engaging and resonate with the audience, covering a myriad of topics through a cultural lens. Fashion, film, art and travel are all things we now experience through our phones, so as I commission I’m aware we’re competing for your time and I'm looking for different ways to cut through the online din of content.
BoF: You started your career as an editor at a company producing illustrated books. How did you make the leap to Nowness? What are your day-to-day responsibilities?
I remember interviewing with Jefferson Hack [editorial director and publisher of Dazed Group] and showing him my books. He stopped on every image and asked for a rationale. It's that kind of uncompromising approach to imagery and visual storytelling we still employ at Nowness [a partnership between LVMH and Dazed Media]. I'm obsessive about reducing superfluous vanity shots in each film and making sure we’re telling a unified story throughout every moment.
The best thing about Nowness is that we run an exclusive film every day, so you always wake up to a successfully launched film. A good day would be reviewing films that have been commissioned by my team or sent to us by directors and brands. Everything we premier needs some type of creative shaping by the team in order to maintain our view of the world through the Nowness lens. Our audience expect high standards of engaged, aesthetic storytelling. We’ve set a bar over the last 6 years and it’s important to maintain it. It’s an ongoing pursuit of excellence.
Fashion, film, art and travel are all things we now experience through our phones.
BoF: What kinds of things grab your interest when commissioning for Nowness? What makes them work for the Nowness channel?
We find a purposefully simple approach to ideas helps us very quickly ascertain if they’re a good Nowness fit. We always ask the same three questions: Is this a new story? Is it told in a new way? Does it move an audience? A simple framework we’re all au fait with helps us focus our rationale for each film. As a team, we're smart and engaged, and these questions allow us to develop smart and engaged content from the ground up. We we work with a diverse set of filmmakers — emerging and established — and these collaborations really change how a story develops. Directors continually push the boundaries I’m working within, or come to a project with a new angle and this tension builds better films.
BoF: What is the most exciting product or initiative that you have worked on?
It would definitely be 'Define Beauty' (series 2). We evolved the commissioning strategy from series 1 (a micro look at parts of the body) to an issues-driven series directly tackling conceptions of beauty and deliberately enticing debate online by skating the squeamish line between attraction and repulsion. We used a three point commissioning strategy to shape the creative — 'Define Beauty' is beautiful; 'Define Beauty' is gross; 'Define Beauty' is current.
BoF: How do you see the online video landscape changing?
Online video is seeking you out now, not the other way round. People want things faster, in their stream rather than having to look for it. In the broader industry, videos routinely get commissioned based on their perceived social media appeal and, for some, the actual shape of the content lets it down. The storytelling doesn't live up to the headline and the content values clicks over quality. At Nowness, we're hyper aware of the importance of using data to commission and increase reach but were informed by it rather than led. We want to make films that you can sell in a single line, but don't compromise on storytelling.
I have an analogy about the Internet being like fast food. You can be served quick, easy and forgettable morsels of content all day. We want Nowness to occupy a space for a more sustained approach to video. A sense of slow food and slow internet governs how we create. The idea that diligent preparation and investment in the process creates something more satisfying in the long run. If you put more in, you get more out.
BoF: What advice do you have for people who are interested in doing what you do? What tools or skills should people have?
You have to be able to manage contrast on a daily basis, minute to minute. You have to nurture new talent and court old school directors. You need to be able to manage big, branded projects alongside someone's genius iPhone footage from their vacation. You have to develop top line creative strategy and debate a single shot in a single film that's playing on a Saturday in two months. You have to be able to watch every edit like it’s the first time you've seen the film. You have to be creatively courageous, without being a kamikaze, and wide open to new experiences and ideas. You have to care about what you're making. You have to be prepared to be wrong. You have to break balls as well as hearts.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
For more information about fashion industry roles like this and others, visit BoF Careers.