The DAddy of An­i­ma­tion

In the ever-chang­ing world of new tech­nol­ogy Glas­gow dig­i­tal pi­o­neer DA Group has learned to adapt to sur­vive, writes COLIN CARD­WELL

The Herald Business - - Profile -

THERE is a lu­mi­nes­cent glow from the PC mon­i­tors in the base­ment of Glas­gow’s Light­house build­ing – head­quar­ters of DA Group – and a crackle of ex­cite­ment as chief ex­ec­u­tive Mike Antliff darts from screen to screen.

The for­mer ar­chi­tect seems hap­pi­est at the busi­ness end; ear­lier, chat­ting in the meet­ing room he’s clearly anx­ious to pro­pel the con­ver­sa­tion away from busi­ness mod­els and share prices (im­por­tant as th­ese are) to­ward the troupe of mini-sized char­ac­ters now pop­u­lat­ing multi-me­dia and mo­bile phone screens across the globe.

The com­pany de­scribes it­self as the smart face of dig­i­tal com­mu­ni­ca­tions. De­liv­er­ing “a new breed of interactive ser­vices” on the in­ter­net, interactive TV and mo­bile phones. Antliff is clearly very ex­cited about the Yomego brand and its cheeky lit­tle an­i­mated char­ac­ters that are en­gag­ing the type of au­di­ence that mes­sages, blogs and has a vo­ra­cious ap­petite for each suc­ces­sive, so­phis­ti­cated wave of tech­nol­ogy. The brand pro­vides things such as wall­pa­per, screen­savers, char­ac­ter texts and alerts to mo­bile phone users.

For ex­am­ple, Yomego cre­ated the Aussie avatar which de­liv­ered up­dates and com­pe­ti­tions to the PCs and mo­biles of fans

of I’m a Celebrity ...Get Me Out Of Here. Else­where, on­line re­porter Big Frank will shout the odds for you at Lad­brokes. An an­i­mated (if that’s not an in­her­erent con­tra­dic­tion) Ge­off Boy­cott will de­liv­ery a com­men­tary on the cricket in his char­ac­ter­is­ti­cally tac­i­turn York­shire drawl on Chan­nel 5. And DA has teamed up with Two Way TV to cre­ate a pla­toon of ir­rever­ant an­i­mated per­son­alised ‘avatars’, which can broad­cast, play games and chat. Called Dig­i­tal Iden­ti­ties, or Did­dis. Surely only in Glas­gow could you get away with mak­ing a busi­ness out of a Diddi. “I know,” says Antliff. “It’s great, isn’t it?”

What it def­i­nitely is not, though, is just one big game for all con­cerned. This is se­ri­ous busi­ness for an AIMquoted com­pany that aims to be among the best in the world but still has sev­eral ques­tion marks over it. Rev­enues have gone down then up, so have share prices. Re­struc­tur­ing has been im­ple­mented and Antliff ad­mits that the past three years have been a bit of a roller-coaster though he be­lieves the com­pany is now on the right shape to take on the ever mor­ph­ing world of new me­dia.

“It was time worth spend­ing and it en­abled us to dif­fer­en­ti­ate our­selves,” he says. “And a lot of that time was reach­ing an un­der­stand­ing of the mo­bile in­dus­try; not just the providers but the hand­sets and tech­nol­ogy.”

Look­ing back, Antliff re­calls a time when the mar­ket value of the com­pany was lower than its net as­set value.

This year be­gan strongly and in Au­gust, with shares on the up, Antliff said said the com­pany was “in talks with a variety of en­ter­tain­ment and me­dia com­pa­nies and the pipe­line in this area is look­ing very en­cour­ag­ing”.

He then added: “Based on this and the mo­men­tum achieved so far this year, we be­lieve we are cur­rently on track to de­liver a suc­cess­ful out­come for the year.”

Last month he said that, with the launch of four new plat­forms, the quar­ter’s busi­ness had equalled last year’s turnover and the busi­ness was on course to meet bro­kers’ pro­jec­tions.

Among re­cent suc­cesses, DA has agreed a deal to pro­vide a com­puter gen­er­ated fig­ure to ap­pear on the web­site of the television tal­ent show The X Fac­tor. Un­der an agree­ment with Fre­mantleMe­dia Li­cens­ing World­wide, the li­cen­sor of The X Fac­tor brand, DA Group cre­ated a 3D char­ac­ter called Dino to re­port on the ITV1 pro­gramme.

DA was, re­mem­ber, the com­pany that brought us Ananova, the aqua­ma­rine-haired vir­tual news­reader now owned by Orange, plus the first vir­tual pop star, Tmmy. In Fe­bru­ary 2003 it merged with Black ID and emerged un­der the

“a touch more fun and au­then­tic­ity”. Antliff, not a pro­fes­sional IT geek, is unashamedly fas­ci­nated by the crowd of char­ac­ters that range from the surly, pout­ing Chav Girl to Big Frank (at­tired, John Mot­son-like in sheep­skin jacket) and DJ, a curious com­bi­na­tion of Oor Wul­lie and Bono.

“When we had cre­ated the tech­nol­ogy be­hind Ananova we had some­thing of real value,” says Antliff. “We had sec­tor spe­cific so­lu­tions – and me­dia and en­ter­tain­ment tech­nol­ogy was go­ing to drive it. In our pitch to me­dia com­pa­nies we can help them en­gage more ef­fec­tively in their com­mu­ni­ties through interactive ap­pli­ca­tions; user gen­er­ated con­tent; com­mu­nity based so­lu­tions – and help them gen­er­ate new rev­enue streams through ad­ver­tis­ing with­out alien­at­ing the au­di­ence that is their core busi­ness.”

And that is as good an ar­gu­ment as any for the main­stream pub­lish­ers’ and broad­cast­ers’ race into dig­i­tal tech­nol­ogy, web­site, blogs – and any­thing else that will re­place de­clin­ing rev­enues in tra­di­tional ar­eas. “In the 1970s you could, as an ad­ver­tiser, ex­pect to tap into an au­di­ence of 20m peo­ple,” Antliff points out. With frag­men­ta­tion of the whole me­dia arena, that clearly isn’t the sim­ple op­tion now. “We have to help our clients re­tain and at­tract new cus­tomers and get some of that DA Group ban­ner as an in­tel­li­gent com­mu­ni­ca­tions provider. It’s a strange hin­ter­land be­tween re­al­ity and the pol­ished, as­sured, on-screen per­son­al­i­ties who have in­creas­ingly be­come, well, per­son­al­i­ties.

Antliff’s mis­sion is to make the con­nec­tions. The com­pany is, he says, work­ing at the cusp of the real world and the dig­i­tal world. DA Group com­prises around 30 peo­ple knock­ing creative sparks off each other in John Ren­nie Mack­in­tosh’s iconic Glas­gow build­ing.

Though firmly in the com­mer­cial as well as the creative van­guard, there must be one sus­pects, a fair dose of laugh­ter amid the throes of the se­ri­ous busi­ness of de­vel­op­ing and grow­ing a com­pet­i­tive com­pany, with the likes of Horny Lit­tle Devil and Dom­i­na­trix keep­ing them com­pany. Or more re­cently, the Did­dis, 3-D an­i­mated char­ac­ters that can jump, dance, walk, talk or sing.

Users can, with a few clicks, also cre­ate a per­sonal car­i­ca­ture, and add a record­ing for ad­ver­tis­ing rev­enue back.” With this in mind, the com­pany – hav­ing in­vested in de­vel­op­ing a re­mark­able port­fo­lio of prod­ucts – is con­cen­trat­ing on com­mer­cial­is­ing them. “We’ve built in user-gen­er­ated con­tent,” Antliff ex­plains. “Be­side the an­i­ma­tion tech­nol­ogy we have built in mul­ti­me­dia ca­pa­bil­ity plus se­cure pay­ment gate­ways for down­loads, sub­scip­tions and so on.” The com­pany’s pri­mary fo­cus, he says, is broad­cast­ers, TV pro­duc­tion com­pa­nies, bet­ting and sports or­gan­i­sa­tions. Th­ese com­pa­nies in­clude MTV (with its rather be­guil­ing Manga-es­que avatars on MTV-Flux), Chan­nel 5, and En­de­mol, one of the UK’s largest pro­duc­ers of en­ter­tain­ment for­mats. The Yomego brand has also taken taken DA Group into the Chi­nese and Tai­wanese mar­kets for the first time and helped it forge agree­ments with Span­ish and Turk­ish com­pa­nies ear­lier this year. Like a proud fa­ther, and back in demon­stra­tion mode, Antliff clicks a mouse to move a mouth, ad­just a hair­style and add a mous­tache to a lit­tle Dig­i­tal Iden­tity. The rapidly chang­ing face of DA Group is se­ri­ous fun.

Mike Antliff in char­ac­ter in Glas­gow

Switched on: Mike Antliff sees a bright dig­i­tal fu­ture for avatars like Chris Ka­mara (left) and Ge­off Boy­cott (right)

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