#AgencyFocus: The studio behind SuzelleDIY & Tali’s Wedding Diary
by Sabrina Forbes. The production house that’s brought you viral shows such as SuzelleDIY and Tali’s Wedding Diary began as an idea in a bedroom. “Sketchbook was a figment of my imagination about 15 years ago, when I was just a 3D animator trying to make myself look bigger on my invoices. I would always invoice ‘Sketchbook Studios’ but it was just me; the studio was my bedroom in my parents’ house,” says Ari Kruger, who began making films with his father’s video camera when he was 12 and went on to co-create two of South Africa’s most-loved characters.
Not long after its humble start, Kruger (@arikruger) transitioned into directing, still under the umbrella of Sketchbook Studios (@sketchbkstudios). He was still in his bedroom — in a tiny flat. Soon he began dating artist, illustrator, and actress, Julia Anastasopoulos (@knolc) [they were married in 2017]. She was acting in plays and TV ads while he was directing TVCs and music videos. They decided they wanted to do something together and combine their skills.
As he recalls, she had a lot of characters hidden deep within her dying to come out, one such being was an endearing Afrikaans woman who loves to tinker about the house, fixing things her way.
“She is just good at doing DIY. All the original stuff in the videos are her hacks. She used to stick a plastic bag on the wall when she was drilling a hole to catch the dust. That was our first episode and these were things that I was observing about her, thinking, “That’s so weird that she does this stuff; let’s put it in a video’,” he says, when asked on whether DIY was the strategy from the get go.
After a year of experimentation shooting episodes in Anastasopoulos’ flat, the duo decided to use YouTube as the platform to release their content. The web series took off fast and, soon after, brands started knocking on the door. He says that SuzelleDIY was one of the first series to drive South Africans to watch on YouTube; it was the only place you could see it. It was at this time that brands were noticing the power of being in this space but weren’t quite sure how to do it exactly.
It was perfect timing, according to Kruger, albeit an overwhelming and insane experience. It was still just the two of them in the company until producer Natalia Segerman joined, helping to work on brand partnership deals. “That’s when we thought ‘let’s start our own production company’ because we want to be able to facilitate all the brand deals and the productions of the episodes. That’s when Sketchbook Studios became [proprietry limited].” says Kruger.
Three years in, after creating up to 75 SuzelleDIY episodes, many which were branded content with the likes of Checkers, Takealot, and Gumtree, the team decided it needed to look into something else. Enter Tali Babes.
Tali’s Wedding Diary
“Julia has a lot of characters trapped inside of her, and one of them was this character, Tali, who she’d actually had before Suzelle and we thought, well, what could we do with this character? It was almost a reaction to Suzelle being very in the studio and very contained. So, we thought let’s move away from that and take her into the real world and have moving cameras, and go mockumentary-style. It was very liberating to shoot that. There were also more characters to make her world seem more real,” he says.
On their own dime, they shot a two-day pilot. This is when they met Sketchbook’s current commercials director, Glen Biderman-Pam (@glenbidermanpam), after he sent through an audition tape to be Tali’s husband’s best friend and sidekick in the property industry. At this point, they had the bones of the show but no idea what they were going to do with it.
“Making a TV show at this point — there was no way in the world. We couldn’t have even imagined that that was a possibility. So, we made the pilot and then sent it to agencies that we now had relationships with through Suzelle. They all liked it but didn’t know what to do with it. We were like, but this is so good, how can they not see this?” says Kruger, adding that they then heard Showmax had launched again and were looking for original content. Kruger sent in the demo of Tali’s Wedding Diary, got an immediate response and, a year later, had made a full TV show — Sketchbook’s first longform piece of content.
Growing the brand
Next was how to get the Tali brand to grow. Using proof-of-concept learnings from SuzelleDIY, they did what they did best: they stuck to social media and YouTube, launching Tali with a DIY wedding cake episode on Suzelle’s show. Tali also had her own Instagram channel, where short snippets of her life were shared.
Kruger says it took off and grew very quickly. He also believes this show was so popular because this particular group of people had never been portrayed like this, with their weaknesses and strengths shown in raw view. They were all intensely who they were and he says that every South African has, at some point, met a Tali Babes. People know and resonate with these characters. Even though, according to him, Tali is an unlikeable character on paper, the scenarios where she always has a goal (her wedding) but something keeps going terribly wrong allows viewers to see her vulnerability through her struggle.
The team is hoping that the second installment of Tali will go ahead. Kruger says it’s looking positive but, until he’s on set for day one of shooting, he’s not going to believe it. It has, however, been confirmed that there will be a SuzelleDIY movie launched early next year.
Other brand content
It was the organic growth of SuzelleDIY and Tali that showed brands and agencies this production company not only knew what it was doing when it came to creating video content but that it had a solid grasp of the digital landscape and how to use it to grow. Kruger then began being approached to create other types of brand content, with Biderman-Pam acting as one of the commercial directors.
“That, I think, is one of the differentiating things about us a production company. Besides the fact that we do focus on making original content, social media is very much a part of it because we like to marry the two to help launch any original content or other things we’re working on,” says Kruger.
An example is a longform content project with Klipdrift, a talk show on YouTube that is soon to be shown on both MTV Base and BET. Biderman-Pam says that Tali took Sketchbook into a new category of production company with people saying “oh, they’ve done it again”, which means it continues to be approached by brands to create anything from traditional commercials to more creatively led web series. OK Foods and Clorets are two more examples currently being worked with.
Both Kruger and Biderman-Pam agree that it’s a challenging job to continue to ‘feed the beast’ that is digital media and that it’s harder than most people think but it can work out. Biderman-Pam likes to think there are several different ways to approach creating content; it’s just has to be in line with who one is as a person in real life. He has chosen to stick to Instagram to grow his comedy brand, adding that if one puts some time into crafting the idea and then shooting it semi-professionally but ensure it doesn’t just look like another ad, there’s an effect that happens there. If you stay legit and consistent, somebody will find you.
- Interview: Julia Anastasopoulos on building brand SuzelleDIY
- Ad of the Week: Suzelle meets Nataniël at Checkers
- Ad of the Week: Takealot of this DIY Christmas Special with Suzelle
Updated at 9.46am on 26 November 2019.
“#Agency/BrandFocus” is an ongoing weekly series updating the market on ad agency performance, including business performance, innovation, initiatives, the work, awards and people.
Sabrina Forbes (IG) is an experienced writer covering the food, health, lifestyle, beverage, marketing and media industries. She runs her own full-stack web/app development and digital-first content creation company. For more, go to moonwrench.com. She is a contributing writer to MarkLives.com.