In the Picture

Tuesday, February 1, 2011 - 08:31

Working in an industry you are passionate about is the lot of too few. Chris Murray of creative house Neon Group is one. By Josie Gagliano

When Chris Murray speaks of his work, the enthusiasm flows; it's positively infectious. He is the Co-Director of The Neon Group, a range of companies that produce film and online content, undertake projects such as launches and marketing events, can do multidisciplinary creative design, and provide professional studio facilities. He's a busy man.

While he began work in magazine ad sales, Murray's writing talent got him the gig as managing editor for Australian Playboy and later as launch editor for internationally respected movie magazine Empire. His passion for film and music has also given him time in broadcast media, including regular slots on Channel Seven's Sunrise as their weekly music/film reporter, and regular slots on Austereo's Triple M radio network.

Candid, fun and volatile

The birth of Neon stemmed from an opportunity for Murray to work on Popcorn Taxi, a regular live and dynamic event where filmmakers and enthusiasts meet to watch films and discuss the filmmaking process.

"I'd long left Empire and I truly had no plan about what to do next," says Murray. "I was doing some freelance work when I was asked to host some Popcorn Taxi sessions when [co-founder] Gary Doust was running the show.

"I'd never been to a Popcorn Taxi event. The first time was to interview actor Jason Schwartzman (The Darjeeling Limited) in front of 300 people. I liked the atmosphere and the fact that you could be completely honest; it was wildly different. It wasn't this projection of intelligence; it was candid, fun and volatile."

When, about a year later, Doust was unsure of what to do with the enterprise, Murray decided to step in.

"I viewed it similarly to taking on the production of a magazine, but for one night only. I'm dealing with the same type of people; in this case, in the film industry. I thought, give me a go, I reckon I can make this work. That was now nearly three years ago."

Murray's company Neon Pictures, formed with business partner and strategist Peter Taylor, took over the management of Popcorn Taxi. Now sole director, Neon's business structure is simple; a few key performance indicators, a solid commitment to time at the wheel, and a 50/50 share split between Doust and Neon.

"Neon Pictures is the company Peter and I started around four years ago with a strategy to create and work on projects we actually believed in," says Murray.

"We were working from a small flat in Kings Cross in Sydney when we first started, and now we have two floors of a building. It's now very grown-up and a bit terrifying," Murray says.

Risky business

Murray and Taylor have had their fair share of challenges along the way.

"We improvised on a new business based on an old business shell at the worst possible time to start a business," he says. "Even though it was pre-GFC, the economy certainly wasn't thriving. It was difficult in those early days. The other way we looked at it, though, was that it was only going to thrive from that point on."

Ask him if he thought at the time that it was mad to take such a seemingly risky business step, Murray is candid: "Completely, still do. At my age, 38, I should be earning lots of money, and enjoying holidays to places with weird names, but I am still just working hard.

"But there is just so much potential in what we're doing, I don't want to waste any time. And my thinking is that when times are tough and budgets are being cut, if you're the business that's offering the best service and product you possibly can, when times are good again, your company is the one people will come back to.

"The true secret is having the best people communicating and cementing that work ethos, and we are blessed to have that with the heads of all departments at Neon."

In the quest for business growth, Taylor explains that in highly competitive times, while an initial Neon business pitch to a client may not be picked up, often an inadvertent new opportunity evolves as a result.

"Sometimes, after presenting a pitch to a client, they tell us, 'Your concept is too good for this campaign, so we want to use it for our next project instead'," he says. "That's both exciting and rewarding as it gives us an unexpected opportunity to work with; it keeps us working, and ensures our name stays recognised in a crowded industry."

Business strategy

Murray reveals that Neon's business strategy is one of taking great ideas to clients. It requires commitment.

"We knock on the door of prospective clients, give them creative angles they hadn't thought of, and demonstrate why they need us.

"We like to provide solutions for a problem they haven't fully realised they have yet.

"Just saying, 'Hey, we're good', doesn't cut it; you have to pitch with a well-thought campaign strategy that is uber-specific only to the prospective client.

"So we aim to create a demand for a company via proving our supply is unique and desirable and, most importantly, applicable to their brand."

Born of such an approach and their service capabilities, Neon's client list is impressive, with work done for Universal Pictures, BMW, Panasonic and Fairfax Media. Talked-about events, experiential launches and corporate productions are the bread and butter of Neon Projects.

With full audiovisual production facilities covering the entire pre-production process, another of the companies at Neon (Neon Solutions) do a lot of work for clients on multifaceted web portals, logo design or creative concepts. Neon Solutions is also an integral part of the online and branding applications to all Neon and Studio 33 (Neon's all services video production company) clients. It's an area of interest for Murray.

"The older I get, the more I understand the true concept of branding," he says. "To me it means an entity that is ingrained in the brain with a desired emotional response; something that offers immediate association with a certain quality and fulfillment."

Applying a 'branding experience' to Popcorn Taxi movie events, Murray says: "We have to listen to what the audience wants. To apply it to a business model, I am the supplier and I need to give them what they want, otherwise they won't buy my stuff anymore. And my 'stuff' here is an amazing movie event.

"I have to create a demand by demonstrating that what we're doing is awesome, every single time, and to have them expect and demand something equally amazing the next time they attend.

"The whole team has regular meetings where we get together and really brainstorm, for every area of Neon. For every 20 off-the-cuff ideas, maybe only five are really fantastic. We set about making them real."

As to the future, surviving is often the real test of any business's mettle. Asked about the challenges Neon faces, Murray and Taylor agree: "The same challenges any business has had to face, and must continue to: everyday business sustainability, while trying to maintain long-term projects. That's always hard."