Media Co-op celebrates 20 years of award-winning productions

‘All of us had worked in a lot of undemocratic businesses … that were quite unhappy workplaces and we just wanted to do things differently’

Twenty years ago a group of media professionals with different backgrounds decided to set up Media Co-op to address a gap in the market. Having been involved in different campaigns, they knew that social justice groups struggled with multimedia production and had nowhere to get help from since the majority of multimedia production businesses were commercially driven.

“We started because all of us were doing different media jobs,” recalls Lucinda Broadbent, an executive producer, director and facilitator at Media Co-op, who at the time was working in television directing.

“I was doing television directing and I found that I was being asked by charities to do films because people working in charities knew me from activism, but didn’t know where to go to get films made. We thought there was a business opportunity. There was a need for social justice movements to have films and other media, and they didn’t have anywhere to go to find people who were professionals in media, but also working in social justice movements and who could actually understand what they needed, what they wanted and what they were about.

“They’d have the choice between working with people who were keen, but not very professional, or people who were professional but quite commercial. And so we thought there was a gap for us. We started the organisation to see whether that worked. And here we are 20 years later.”

Since then, the co-op has gone from strength to strength, winning a range of awards for its projects. Yet, despite its success, it continued to stay co-op-owned and values-driven.

“The reason we chose the co-op model is that all of us had worked in a lot of undemocratic businesses, private companies and even semi-public corporations that were quite unhappy workplaces and we just wanted to do things differently since it was our idea and we were setting it up,” Broadbent explains. “We looked around for a model and came across the co-operative model. We thought, if this has already lasted over 100 years, it must have something good going for it. And we liked the concept so that’s why we chose it.”

Being a co-op also means being part of a wider movement and working with other co-ops. 

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“I would absolutely say that we felt very supported to be part of a family of co-operatives,” adds Broadbent. The co-op engages with the Cross-Party Group on Co-operatives in the Scottish Parliament and is a member of Cooperative Technologists (CoTech), a network of UK co-operatives providing technology, digital and creative services.

“That’s definitely been a really important support for us as a business that we can find like-minded people who share our principles and that we can have that sisterly brotherly feel with other businesses through the movement. Feeling part of something bigger has been important to us.”

As a workers’ co-operative, Media Co-op is run by its employee members, who meet every week to discuss ideas and share project updates. All members are directors of the co-op and have quarterly meetings where they review the finances and make official decisions about different aspects of their work.

“When we’re thinking about things like strategy and business development and policy decisions, everybody’s involved in a conversation together,” says producer Cat Robertson, who joined the co-op a few years ago.

Media Co-op also runs an equal pay policy, meaning that all employee members are paid the same.

“We decided to all pay ourselves the same salary, no matter what our grade was. There’s no way we could have done that had we been in a more conventional company,” adds Broadbent.

Another benefit of working for the co-op is having a flexible working environment.

“One really important thing about the co-operative model and Media Co-op compared to any other job and film or TV that any of us have had is the autonomy over our working conditions, and we’re all part of making the policies and deciding how we’ll work and if you work freelance in film and TV there’s none of that,” says Robertson.

She adds that while there have been some minor changes in the sector in recent years, the industry remains rigid. Before joining the co-op she used to start her working day at 7:30 am and finish at 8pm.

“If I had kids or caring responsibilities, there was no allowance for that,” she adds.“People should be able to have a career in television or the film industry without giving up the normal things of life like family, friends, caring responsibilities, being able to volunteer, being able to just do normal, healthy, wholesome things and be part of your community.”

She explains that Media Co-op has flexible working and good maternity leave policies along with other benefits to enable people to work in the industry and still maintain a good balance in their lives. 

Another issue affecting the industry, says Broadbent, is the fact that companies that are started by people who share a passion for the industry often get bought out by bigger players.

“Nobody can buy us, we’re not for sale. As a workers co-op, the workers own the company, no-one else,” explains Broadbent.

“I’ve worked with a lot of different independent companies and I’ve absolutely seen what happens that you can start with a team that’s all full of enthusiasm, and then the money gets sucked out of it to pay the company that buys the company and it no longer goes into the product and it definitely doesn’t go into the workers.” 

She highlights that because workers are in control they can decide what they do with the money, for example, making  the decision to pay everyone the same. 

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“I think it’s a fantastic model for media and also a fantastic model for tech.

“I think the business being democratic really suits our industry. I can’t understand why there aren’t more of us – though we do jump up and down and shout about how good it is to be a workers co-op. It’s a creative industry and I think, why not be creative about the way you design your company and the way you run your work as well as being creative in what you produce, there’s no reason why not, so I would hope that there’ll be more co-ops in our sector, particularly worker co-operatives.”

Being a co-op is not without challenges – especially since other players in the industry are now seeking to work with charities and third-sector organisations. 

An animation produced by the co-op for Rape Crisis Scotland

“Production companies that wouldn’t normally work with clients that we work with are now looking to pick up charity work and work with third sector organisations,” says Robertson. “Most companies now have gotten on board with things like trying to be an ethical supplier and source things sustainably and recycle and all of these things. Twenty years ago, when Media Co-op started, that wasn’t necessarily the way that businesses operated. And that made Media Co-op stand out back in the day. But now that’s very normal and almost expected for most businesses.

“So a lot of businesses will say that that’s what they’re up to and we don’t catch people’s eyes anymore. But that’s a good thing, really, that people are catching on and thinking about these things more.”

“Another challenge is trying to be more active in the co-op movement more broadly to find the time to keep the business afloat and at the same time, play our part in promoting co-operatives more widely,” adds Broadbent. 

“Having had support from a lot of other co-ops in the past, we’re trying to do a lot of giving back and that takes some determination to do while keeping going with the day job, but we do feel that’s a worthwhile thing to do,”
she says.

The pandemic has also changed how many media agencies work, including Media Co-op, with more client conversations held  online. 

“We’ve had to develop ways of working and developing animation and film projects with clients through online workshops,” says Robertson.

Despite these adjustments, the two agree that the co-op’s ethos remains the same. It continues to take on projects that have a cause or activist dimension. The work includes producing films aimed at tackling the gender pay gap, producing oral history interviews on how gay life has changed in rural Scotland and developing materials to highlight the Scottish labour and suffragette history. 

Some of these videos co-produced with local groups will be on display at the Paisley Museum this year.

“That’s a really exciting thing because we’ll be able to go to a museum and see our work there,” says Robertson. One of these films has been shortlisted for an award.

As to the future, the co-op will be looking to grow its team this year and host a range of events to celebrate its anniversary. All this while continuing to produce award-winning content.

The list of awards includes two Royal Television Society Awards for Best Animation and Best Short-Form Content, the Amnesty International Media Award, the Royal Television Society craft shortlist for Best Editor and two BAFTA Scotland nominations, and being a Finalist in the UK-wide Charity Film Awards (three times).

As one of the founding members, Broadbent says she is proud of what the co-op has achieved over the past two decades. But most of all, she is proud of “making it a good place to work”.

“We are also very motivated and we’re not disheartened by having bosses who don’t understand what we do, because we are our own bosses. That’s really helped boost the creativity and the value of what we do and it’s good to see that’s recognised,” she says.

Media Co-op is celebrating its 20th birthday by donating 200 films to Scotland’s Moving Image archive at a public ceremony on 12 June 2024, and a Cooperatives Fortnight event in Glasgow on 25 June.