Corey O’Brien of Aquent Studios on Bringing Together the Best Creative Talent Worldwide

Corey O’Brien of Aquent Studios on Bringing Together the Best Creative Talent Worldwide

Interview by Anja Paspalj
Published: December 15, 2022

Who Is Corey O’Brien?

Corey is currently the VP of Strategy Solutions at Aquent Studios, specializing in market strategies, new business development efforts and client engagement. He has spent most of his career in agencies working within the fields of creative and digital marketing. He completed his undergraduate studies in Liberal Arts and his MBA in Business.

Imagine having a global pool of creatives at your fingertips and the opportunity to create a tailor-made team of professionals for any client brought together virtually from all over the world. Aquent Studios, the global co-creation agency and part of global work solutions company Aquent, has made this a reality, for clients and digital nomads alike

But how does a company based in Boston, with over 700 internal employees, manage freelancers all across the globe, further develop this innovative staffing model and keep up with the newest trends in the digital and creative industries?

VP of Strategy Solutions at Aquent Studios Corey O’Brien is here to let us in on their secrets.

Aquent logo
[Source: Aquent]

Spotlight: Can you tell us a bit more about the beginning of Aquent Studios? What started it?

Corey O’Brien: It was initially born out of the acquisition of a company called Saxon Taylor in 2006, and that was because of a really strong, managed solution partnership with Microsoft. In fact, our current president and one of our SVPs of Operations was originally with Saxon and is still a leader with Aquent Studios today. We’ve grown substantially since those early days, both from our capabilities, as well as different engagement models, but still through a majority of organic growth.

Where we now find ourselves is as a digital creative and co-creation agency. Now that we have expanded, we are focused on enabling and empowering clients to craft stories and experiences through our capabilities within strategy, enablement and activation. The channels have expanded and exploded, really. We are now working all across digital, creative and experience design, video and content creation.

You have a huge talent network of creatives, over two million around the globe. How do you go about managing this huge group of people that you have worldwide?

On any given day, we have roughly 800 people internally across Aquent Studios that are working on client projects. And that is pretty large within the creative agency space. So, you can imagine the scale and magnitude of creative operations and the resourcing that is required to run an agency of that size efficiently. As we continue to grow, we need to add people and capabilities, like video, 3D design, and shortly, we’ll even have a Metaverse practice standing up. We actually need quick access, to vetted, highly-skilled creatives and top talent, and that’s where that network comes in.

On a daily basis, Aquent Talent, which is the recruiting and the talent surfaces arm of Aquent, is screening and interviewing thousands of creative candidates both for client-managed freelance opportunities and client-managed staff augmentation. That’s the foundation.

It is a significant differentiator for us as a creative agency because it allows us to add capacity or scale faster than most agencies and certainly faster than many of our clients.

How do you work on career development with the freelancers that you collaborate with Aquent Talent? Especially because there’s so many of them in the team.

Keep in mind that out of those 700 or 800 folks that are internal to Aquent Studios on a daily basis, some are full-time employees, some are salaried and some are hourly-based. So creative development is huge. Continuous learning is one of the pillars of Aquent as a whole, and so at the company level, there’s also a significant annual learning reimbursement that encourages folks to follow their passion. Personally, Aquent helped me get an MBA while I was working here years ago.

That’s amazing! 

That’s provided to our full-time folks, but at the same time full-time work isn’t a fit for everyone. There are talented people that seek out remote flex work at different points of their life. Those are the types of professionals that are on our remote or on-call flex teams. I think they are attracted to that model of Aquent Studios’ flex work because of the different brands we work with, but also the breadth of the creative projects. The more flexible their skills are, the more work we have for them. So, there is an incentive to keep learning new skills and new tools and bring that into Aquent.

When a client approaches you with a certain project that they’re doing, how do you go about curating a perfect team of creatives to work on it?

That’s it! That’s where the magic happens. I will say that I think we have, in my 17-year-long experience, the strongest account management and creative operations team in the business. It’s really that team that makes the magic happen, both from resourcing and understanding the work of clients, and then also in bringing it together to execute. How we choose depends on the work, the work stream and how we’re engaging it.

There’s that traditional engagement model, or what we see as a newer engagement model which is our co-creation agency model. We see that as a model where we create a common vision and shared ownership with clients and then act as an extension to their team. Each of those different models would require a different project team assembly. We’ve brought together folks from in-house creative agencies, from Starbucks, GoPro and Williams-Sonoma. We brought together leaders from traditional advertising agencies like Google Assist or Wondermen. Then we have some amazing homegrown leaders that all come together to form operation’s braintrust of Aquent Studios.

You probably understand this as well as anybody, the traditional advertising model is very different from what I described now. It’s not an off-the-shelf and who do we have on the bench that we should probably put on this team. We’re able to really tailor-build teams and skills to the work at hand.

When you put a bunch of those people together, then you get diverse talents, ideas and skillsets too. What are some of the most innovative solutions that you have worked on with the team at Aquent?

That’s a big question! As a global creative agency having global talent, it’s not just different industries but different marketing channels that we deal with, including Adobe, Starbucks, Chick-Fil-A, John Deere and many others. Sometimes we’re working as a creative agency, and sometimes we’re supporting the brand marketers themselves, so each of the ways that those solutions come together is going to be different.

It’s hard to pick one, but one that I am personally most excited about, are the results in partnership are with Starbucks Roastery and Reserves. Aquent Studios was selected to step in as their partner agency to help launch what was the largest Starbucks in the world at that time, and I think still is, The Chicago Roastery and Reserve. That was such a packed timeframe on a multitude of deliverables from menus and copy and signage within the store, event experiential, event activations and videos and overall engagement under a very tight timeframe. It was back in 2019 pre-Covid, so it was a very successful launch for a few months until the world changed and people stopped going to big spaces to be around strangers and tourists. Still, that partnership persevered and we helped transition into a more digital process, pairing coffee and food for delivery. As the world started returning to normal, we are still a partner to bring it back and help them launch new stores.

There’s one that folks on the East Shore will be seeing shortly. In our teams we brought together that diversity of ideas and projects, so our team now supports them from coast to coast. Wherever we are, we really bring together the best creative teams for the right type of work.

Aquent also puts a lot of focus on the proprietary tech that you use, so how does that help in managing this global pool of creatives?

We do try to, where possible, build our own tools and that’s been quite successful. Some are actually available externally to buy and use. From a technology standpoint, there’s no easy way to manage a large pool of global creators, but I think we do a pretty good job at it. Obviously, there’s ways to improve, and that’s why we continuously grow and evaluate.

The biggest tool that we use internally is a tool called RoboHead, a project management workflow tool. The interesting thing about Aquent Studios as a whole is that we have the tools and the technology to help us move to a remote work space throughout the pandemic. I think we’ve been really ahead of the curve in that. It was the key that helped us from the technology standpoint for clients and what’s in it for them, we were able to seamlessly go remote from a tool standpoint but also in managing teams.

What creative services have you noticed are the most in-demand right now and why do you think that is?

A lot has changed throughout the last few years. It’s a very interesting yet challenging time for a lot of our clients. The demand for content across more channels with more personalization is just growing exponentially, and so the demand on our in-house agency clients and brands is really intense. Overnight, brands needed more digital engagement versus in-person, experiential or print.

That increased demand, but it also changed the demand. That was an incredible time of growth for Aquent Studios because we were able to easily and quickly step in to fill that gap. We were able to support brands and in-house agencies with brand new capabilities for them. That was probably what was the most in-demand and still is, creative content for paid media in performance marketing. We’re seeing a huge demand for that.

If you look at where we are today, with all the uncertainty and fear in the economy in the daily headlines, many companies are starting to tighten their belts and even freeze hiring. We are starting to see demand for support for Aquent Studios increase even more as the expectation for those brands and in-house teams remains the same but the resources, they have been starting to contract so they certainly need help from a trusted partner.

You also mentioned a team that will be dedicated to working within the Metaverse. What do you think of that as a creative service that more and more people look towards?

We’re going to see. That’s the exciting part! There’s a lot of hype buzz, but at the same time, there’s a lot of curiosity and general interest from our clients. Our owner and founder, John Chuang, who saw the advance of digital desktop publishing with the Macintosh computer and new desktop publishing software, was ahead of the curve seeing that – and it really was one of the tipping points of starting Aquent back from his Harvard dorm room. He actually sees the potential of Metaverse being equally significant for our company and the creative and advertising space as well.

If you look at the social media advance, within a decade it become just another channel where marketers build experiences with customers and tell stories. So, the Metaverse may be that. It may be something even bigger. If we, as individuals, start to spend time in these 3D immersive worlds, that would be transformative. In that case, it may be the channel. I don’t think anybody knows exactly where it’s going to be. It’s early but we’re committed to making sure that we figure this out, both the point of view and content, but also with offerings that really move the needle and are ahead of the curve for our clients. Hopefully, we get the opportunity to speak this time next year and we can come back and see what’s happened.

What are Aquents’ plans to further develop your staffing model? Do you have any changes in mind for the future?

As an agency now we have to walk the line. We still have customers that are going back to their offices. We still have clients that have normal working hours. They’re delivering for their clients within expectations of certain time zones. It certainly adds to the complexity of account management, operations and delivery, but at the same time, we all know that that remote work is the future, so we are figuring that out.

In general, we separate remote, hybrid and digital nomads. I do feel that Aquent Studios has been ahead of the curve in both managing and delivering work and people remotely for over a decade. When Covid hit and shut down offices, we had two dozen physical studios across the US and there was barely a blip in the productivity of our teams. A client like Colgate actually shifted a ton of work to our teams because at the time, they weren’t set up to function remotely. That’s the key. How do you do that in a secure environment if you’re working with finance, aerospace defense or technology, right? The security requirements are important.

A successful digital nomad has to be super communicative and consistent in delivering work on time. Those are two key things for being part of a bigger workflow. In exchange for that, they get the freedom to work anywhere and to work on their own time. We have stories from a large pharma client that supported letting one of our key marketing program managers move to the UK, effectively doing the same job. And earlier this year, a large hospitality chain started bringing our talents to Costa Rica. In September, they were promoted to lead capabilities for that client and since then we’ve brought them on as full-time staff. It just goes to show that you can have the right systems, workflow, security, but it really comes down to who are those folks on the team and do they have the skills innately, or have they gone and developed those skills around self-managing.

And lastly, can you tell us a bit about your journey at Aquent?

Thanks for asking! I’m currently VP in strategy solutions at Aquent Studios, so I’m responsible for harboring our ongoing market strategies, for new business development efforts and client engagement. I’ve spent about 17 years in the agency space, primarily focused within creative and digital marketing. The majority of that time has actually been Aquent. What’s interesting about Aquent is that it’s giving me a unique opportunity to combine my early interest in web design and development that I got at the college I went to for my undergraduate studies in liberal arts and combining that with the business side in an MBA. That brought it all together for me at Aquent.

We’ve grown as a studio, a double-digit growth every year for the past 6 years. With all the challenges of the economy and the pandemic, and as consumers were engaging in a different way with brands that we know and love, it’s certainly been fun to see Aquent Studios grow and all the amazing people and leaders we’ve been able to bring together to do what we do.

Keep up with Aquent Studios on LinkedIn and other Spotlight interviews here!

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