Summary:

Twenty years after it started out in radio production, British digital agency Somethin’ Else is making waves with its innovative iPhone games — and representing a new generation of creative technology firms that are ready to step up and make it big.

Paul Bennun by Matt Locke

Paul Bennun by Matt LockeYou could hardly call London-based Somethin’ Else a startup … after all, it’s been around for almost 20 years. But the British company, which started life in radio production, has spent the last few years reinventing itself as a “content design” outfit — and it’s now gathering the sort of reputation for innovation and creativity that tends to mark out young, entrepreneurial businesses.

What it does can be hard to pin down, not least because the business takes a very modern approach to making money. It works across a wide range of different, constantly-evolving projects rather than putting its eggs in one basket, which means the company’s 70 or so staff do everything from making radio shows (it is one of the largest independent radio producers in the U.K.) to talent management to operating as a web design agency.

But it’s in the digital sphere — and particularly games — that the company is really getting noticed these days. In particular, there was last year’s iOS hit Papa Sangre, an award-winning video game that (peculiarly) had no video. Based around a purpose-built 3-D sound engine, the game effectively blindfolds you and then guides you through only by sound. It’s an astounding audio experience, and rightly gathered plenty of praise.

(The trailer below gives you a flavor of the game, but it’s one of those titles that you have to play to really understand)

Entering the Palace of Bones from Papa Sangre on Vimeo.

For most interactive agencies, that would be the end of the story. But Paul Bennun, the company’s director of digital, explains that Papa Sangre’s success has been a great example of what is propelling Somethin’ Else forwards.

“We go back a long way in games — we produced [the British version of] You Don’t Know Jack back in 1998,” he says. “But we have to start thinking of ourselves as a software company… we have to be flexible.”

By that, he means the company is rapidly developing the technology it’s built into something bigger. It’s just released The Nightjar, another audio-driven game starring actor Benedict Cumberbatch (recently seen in the BBC’s Sherlock reboot) and says Papa Sangre 2 is also on the cards. It’s also looking into the possibility of licensing the audio engine to other games studios as middleware.

It’s an approach that strikes at the core of one of the biggest problems British creative technology businesses face. One of the criticisms of London is that it’s really an agency town: There’s a huge amount of creative work that takes place, but while a lot of it is really pushing the boundaries, it’s also conservative when it comes to taking business risks. Ultimately, the people who do the making are hired in by huge brands and big companies and very few of them are prepared to branch out on their own or make products.

But Bennun, who admires the reinvention of Apple and the reputation of consulting firms like IDEO, has been canny. Papa Sangre was produced under the auspices of Channel 4’s now-defunct 4iP innovation investment fund, which means Somethin’ Else owns the technology. Somethin’ Else is now able to act as a partner rather than simply as a producer, which means it can determine its own future.

So does Bennun think Britain can produce a new generation ambitious businesses that want to transform themselves from well-regarded agencies into something bigger and better? Is it possible?

“Absolutely. Damn right,” he says. “It’s kind of our time at the moment.”

Photo of Paul Bennun used with permission of Matt Locke, test.org.uk

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